The Problem with Purity

Since November 2016, Democrats have been increasingly forced to deal with a unique political phenomenon—one that defies conventional logic and tests the boundaries of partisan allegiances: the pro-life Democrat.

In May 2017, Democrat Heath Mello ran for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska. Mello had expressed “personally pro-life” views. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), deputy chair of the D.N.C., were heavily criticized by some Democrats for campaigning on Mello’s behalf. Critics complained that Democrats and the D.N.C. should not provide support to Democratic candidates who do not toe the party line on abortion, which states that Democrats “oppose, and seek to overturn, federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion.” Mello lost the election, and many believed Democrats’ criticism and demands that Mello fall in line on abortion contributed significantly to the loss.

In the aftermath of the race, D.N.C. chair Tom Perez agreed to meet with Democrats for Life of America, a group of pro-life Democrats. Democrats’ reactions to the Mello race revealed a divide in the Democratic Party. While Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer emphasized the “big tent” nature of the Party, others felt the Party was betraying its values to gain votes. They argued that nothing should justify giving ground on the abortion issue. These demands for ideological purity, which infected the Republican Party during the Obama years and are now appearing among Democrats, are dangerous for both party and country.

Danger to Party

Efforts to demand ideological purity from all party members drags the party closer towards its fringes, where results and bipartisanship are generally more important and political posturing less important. The 2010 midterm elections saw right-wing challengers successfully unseat established Republican legislators in Delaware, New York, Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Utah, and Alaska. In the 2010 Utah G.O.P. primary, three-term Senator Bob Bennett was topped by two Tea Party candidates. Senator Bennett, who was endorsed by Mitt Romney, was not conservative enough despite the following bona fides: 0% pro-choice, pro-environment, and pro-union ratings and 100% pro-business, pro-military, and pro-family ratings. He was ousted for supporting bipartisanship and compromise on the government bailout and healthcare. Harshly punishing even the slightest deviation from partisan ideological purity results in increasingly extreme and uncompromising lawmakers. That helped cause the current Republican dysfunction in Congress. The Republican party controls both houses of Congress and the White House, and has still been unable to pass any landmark legislation beyond the tax reform bill.

With Republicans in power, some Democrats appear to be unadvisedly adopting the Tea Party tactics. The divide revealed by the Heath Mello race shows that a many Democrats want to require ideological purity—in this case, on the issue of abortion. This stance imposes significant difficulty on moderate and red-state Democrats, many of whom must compete in districts that Trump won by large margins. A recent Politico article highlighted the struggle of Indiana state representative Terry Goodin, who is a Democrat and represents a rural district that Trump won handily. Goodin is an anti-abortion, pro-gun, evangelical Democrat. He is the last Democrat in Indiana’s legislature representing an entirely rural district, and he says Democrats in his district feel abandoned by the mainstream Democratic party. If Democrats continue to demand ideological purity, conservative Democrats like Goodin will vanish and be replaced by Republicans.

Danger to Country

Demands for ideological conformity negatively affect the country and its future. The resulting rise in zero-sum take-no-prisoners tactics and rhetoric degrades civil discourse and emphasizes divisive identity politics, hindering progress and good governance. While politics will always inspire impassioned words, extremism invites politicians to demonize the other side, painting an us-versus-them scenario. This binary division is not only wholly unproductive, it is not reflective of the broad political diversity of the American people. It forces upon voters a false dilemma, with no room for socially liberal Republicans or pro-life Democrats. It prevents bipartisan cooperation, even on issues with broad bipartisan support, such as providing legal status to Dreamers, requiring background checks for gun purchases, and allowing legal abortion, all consistently supported by a large majority of Americans. Requiring ideological purity from candidates hamstrings them both in their races and in office. It makes it harder for them to accurately represent their constituents’ views and to cooperate across the aisle. Parties should be fundamentally inclusive organizations, seeking to bring together people with similar values and ideas, rather than exclusive organizations open only to those who can check every ideological box.

Democrats would be wise to note the negative effects this political puritanism has had on Republican Party’s unity and ability to govern. If the Democrats want to maintain any realistic hope of recapturing the House this November, they must broaden their party base rather than continuing to restrict it by demanding ideological purity from candidates. Voters will increasingly feel that they are not welcome in nor well-represented by the Democratic Party if its left-most members require an ideological litmus test for candidates to receive D.N.C. support. Republicans would do well to learn this lesson as well, if they hope to accomplish their goals while they maintain control of Congress and the White House. Our democracy functions best with robust but respectful debate and when bipartisanship and compromise are sought after rather than condemned. Requiring ideological purity undermines those goals, and that’s the problem with purity.

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Nick Hafen

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