My existential terror and spine-crushing dread lifted for a moment and I was, for once, hopeful.
Ben Jealous, a fierce advocate for civil rights and the former head of the NAACP, was running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in my home state of Maryland in 2018, four years after Republican In Name Only and Resistance Lib Hero Larry Hogan had inexplicably won the governorship in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1. It was the summer when Jealous – something of an underdog when he kicked off his campaign – led a watered down field of not-quite-establishment Democrats who didn't really want to run against a so-called moderate Republican governor who had earned the adoration of rich liberals in the Montgomery County suburbs.
Backed by Bernie Sanders and a host of national progressives, Jealous captured the Democratic nomination and would square off against Hogan in November. The central plank of Jealous' platform – the one that helped me shed the scales of doom from my unblinking eyes – was a Medicare For All program that would eliminate all out-of-pocket health-care costs for Marylanders and provide health-care access to around 400,000 people in the state who – living in the richest nation in human history – could not afford to go to the doctor. Jealous' health-care program would have included abortion care (since it is a medical procedure), a big fucking deal after generations of governmental discrimination against coverage of abortion services in the US. Maryland would have a chance to join Illinois and New York as an abortion care oasis in a nation dominated by rabidly anti-abortion Republicans bent on stripping anyone and everyone of their bodily autonomy.
So yes, I was hopeful. Excited, even. We were nearly two years into the Trump administration. The president was applauding right-wing terrorists in Charlottesville and murderous cops across our great land. He had dumped a considerable amount of political capital into killing the Affordable Care Act, the most modest expansion of health-care access in the developed world. His administration was empowering dangerous anti-abortion groups with connections to anti-abortion terrorists. Ben Jealous's unapologetic progressivism and willingness to run headlong into the jaws of the far right was a palate cleanser after 18 months of throwing up in my mouth.
As part of my day job back then – I worked for a news outlet focused on reproductive health and rights – I called a few plugged-in folks in Annapolis to ask them if Jealous's agenda would pass easily through the Democratic-held Maryland legislature. One source told me it probably would, with some tweaks here and there to appease conservative Democrats representing more rural areas. Another told me Jealous's ambitious Medicare For All package could be passed in pieces with a good-enough PR campaign that would pressure lawmakers into action.
The third source in Annapolis sighed and said I didn't understand. What, I asked, did I not understand? Of course the party will support Jealous and his agenda, the person said.
"It doesn't matter what the agenda is," the source told me. "If the candidate has a D next to their name, he's going to get our support."
I recall feeling nauseated. The realization that politics didn't matter to many of (most of?) my state's Democrats was a kick in my naive ass. I followed up by asking if the party would forcefully back a candidate who talked openly about restricting abortion or opening up the state's gun laws. My question was answered with another question.
"Does this candidate have a D next to his name?" the source said.
I reeled for a bit, letting the source talk about Governor Hogan's political vulnerabilities in some parts of the state, before asking one last question. Would the party tell Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis to get behind Jealous's health-care expansion if he edged out Hogan in the fall?
"We can't tell them what to do," the source said.
My instant reaction is the one I have today, four years later: Why not? Why can't Democrats have a coherent, simple plan for improving the material conditions of people's everyday lives? Why can't Democrats speak from the same playbook no matter their constituency? If it's a good, popular plan, then it will attract voters, who will know exactly what they're getting when they cast a vote for a Democrat in Maryland. There will be no question as to what you're getting when you catapult a Democratic candidate into power. They will stick with the plan in opposition to a fierce and highly-organized right wing determined to wield power and stop Democrats from governing effectively.
"They have their own minds," the source added.
Perhaps I'm naive. Probably I am. But a political party should present an easy-to-understand program that can be implemented with sufficient representation in the corridors of power. If someone doesn't support the party's plan, they can run as an independent or a Republican or for some wild-eyed third party. The Democratic Party, if it's ever going to present a sellable program – a set of ideal-driven policies that benefit working families – is going to have to implement a litmus test.
Litmus tests get a bad name. I'm a big proponent of litmus tests, which can make politics more black and white, more easily understood and accessed. For example: There's no earthly reason the party should be backing any candidate who doesn't support abortion on demand, yet we have Nancy Pelosi and her cadre of useless octogenarians rallying around Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas in his primary battles every two years. No Democrat should get the party's backing unless they support a public health care option. The same goes with an assault rifle ban (I'll stop short of saying the repeal of the Second Amendment; I'm not that naive). The main resistance to rising fascism can't be a party that functions as a vacuous make-work program. We have no future if this is the case.
The Democratic Party desperately needs a series of litmus tests to ensure it can ram through a republic-saving agenda if and when they ever stumble into power again. Litmus tests would mean piece of shit villains like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema would have to run as the Republicans they are. Good motherfucking riddance.
Litmus tests and a coherent political program would allow Democrats to face voters with a genuinely good-faith plan. Americans terrified by our descent into the yawning jaws of fascism can't allow the bad guys to be the only ones telling the truth. Truth – even ugly truths – must be told, along with solutions for the problems at the root of these truths. This is the only way to get young people to the polls. Don't fuck around with them; give it to them straight. Only they have the power to dilute the sway of their broken-brained boomer parents. And they do not respond to the sort of hollowed-out, disingenuous politics Democrats have mastered over the past half century. Young people in the US know life sucks. Tell them what you're going to do about it and maybe they'll put your dumb ass in the driver's seat.
Ben Jealous understood this in 2018. “The only way to win this election is to run right towards the people of the state, to give voice to their pain and put real solutions on the table that are capable of solving the problems all of our families face," he said. "Whether that’s surging health-care costs … public universities [becoming] too expensive, or an economy that’s stuck.”
What happened to Jealous in the 2018 gubernatorial race, you might ask? Hogan, after months of pretending he disagreed with Donald Trump on anything, thumped Jealous in the general election. Hogan won the labor union vote by one point. One-third of registered Democrats in Maryland voted for the Republican over the left-wing Democrat. Hogan pulled 46 percent of the vote in my home county, Montgomery County, a supposed bastion of progressive politics unless you want to make slight improvements to the lives of people who don't drive a fucking Tesla and have a house on the shore.
Mainline Democrats are indistinguishable from "moderate" Republicans and young people are poisoned by well-earned disenchantment. That has to change is we are to escape this abyss. Bring on the litmus tests.
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter @CDCarter13 for maximum alienation.