For understandable reasons, namely the recriminatory and seemingly never-ending bitterness that some supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have toward each other regarding the 2016 Democratic primary, there is a running joke/observation online about how the 2020 primary, which is expected to involve many more candidates and which has basically already begun with Elizabeth Warren’s announcement that she’s forming a presidential exploratory committee, is going to be hell on earth that will make us all want to gouge out our own eyes and then pour hot bleach into the raw, bleeding sockets.
This is a fair observation in the context of the flame war between certain highly online Democrats and their more radical socialist-leaning counterparts over ex–Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Vermont Sen. Sanders, two potential 2020 candidates. In nearly unseating Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, O’Rourke demonstrated a kind of optimistic charisma that has built buzz among well-connected Dems who see him as a potential Obama-style candidate. The buzz provoked a (respectful!) critique of his cautious policy positions by leftist writer Elizabeth Bruenig in the Washington Post, which then blew up into accusations that Sanders’ 2016 supporters are cultishly trying to kill the candidacy of anyone who could challenge him in 2020, which has broadened into a fight over whether Obama was a good president. It’s a sensitive subject among liberals/leftists/Democrats/Social Democrats, obviously, and it gets people worked up.
But! There’s a lot about 2020 that any liberal/leftist/Democrat/Social Democrat should feel good about, or at least very interested in.
• Warren’s exploratory committee announcement video presages a candidacy that will promote concrete and aggressive plans to control corporate misbehavior and promote fair economic competition—one that will give primary voters an alternative not just to the more limited “technocratic” approaches of your Obamas and Clintons but also to the more overtly socialist responses to “rigged” economic conditions advocated by Sanders.
• New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (who’s been widely presumed to have been planning a run for president since, like, he was born) has proposed a system of universal, federally funded savings accounts that my colleague Jordan Weissmann has described as the closest any presidential contender has come to endorsing a reparations-style plan for closing the racial wealth gap. Booker’s proposal will likely be among several that put a crucial question at the forefront of voters’ minds: whether efforts to mitigate economic inequality should explicitly address race.
• A number of potential candidates have already signed on to the concept of a “Green New Deal,” a climate change–oriented idea that is vague and expansive at present and whose details/costs/benefits will by necessity be litigated in a competitive primary. The same can also be said of Medicare for all, another concept that voters like but whose exact meaning in a general election and/or legislative context still needs to be worked out. And prospective candidates including Booker, California Sen. Kamala Harris, and Warren have released what are effectively opening-bid plans to start a conversation about the national shortage of affordable housing.
• As my colleague Joshua Keating has written, Sanders and Warren are pushing for a human rights–oriented reconsideration of Democratic foreign policy that could potentially upset the decadeslong D.C. consensus that has made the U.S. complicit in atrocities like the Saudi-created famine in Yemen. Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, another prospective candidate, has also been effective in using political theater tactics to keep the issue of Yemen in the public eye (which, incidentally, is something he’s also done well on the subject of gun violence).
In sum, the various crises of our plutocratic, corrupt, dumb, and bad era have already inspired potential Democratic nominees to tie themselves to a number of really ambitious, substantive ideas across a range of issues. Even the less positive and less constructive storylines that will play out in the primary—like the harsh attacks that front-runner Joe Biden is going to take for his history of support for bank deregulation and mass incarceration policies, or the lingering controversy over New York senator and potential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand’s role in Al Franken’s resignation—point to how deeply liberal politicians believe that their voters are interested in a more aggressive Democratic Party paradigm. For God’s sake, the guy who’s currently being stereotyped as the 2020 establishment/centrist shill candidate, O’Rourke, made his name during his Senate campaign by not accepting corporate PAC contributions and defending Colin Kaepernick (in Texas)!
Will there be assholes online getting in circular arguments and making inappropriate personal attacks on the integrity and intelligence of anyone who supports the wrong candidate(s)? Of course! There always will be assholes. Always, always, always. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that there are always going to be some big assholes in the mix. But we don’t have to let online wankers define the discourse around what is shaping up as the most ideologically significant Democratic primary in at least a generation. All we need to do is pay attention to what the candidates themselves are talking about and remember that social media apps come with a mute button.