There is much discussion lately about how some Democratic candidates may be “too liberal” to win. That term needs disambiguation.
First, “too liberal” may be about policy: if a candidate will raise voters’ taxes and spend money in ways they do not believe benefit them, they may be judged “too liberal.” Second, candidates may express liberal social values that voters believe are out of step with their own. Often, however, too liberal is a euphemism for a candidate who appears to disrespect the way people live their lives and the struggles they face. A candidate is “too liberal” if they appear too elite. Arguably the third of these – elitism – has been more of a problem for Democrats than the first two.
Some things to watch out for:
The Politics of Pandan
Shortly after the 2016 election, I had a lovely dinner at a French-Asian fusion restaurant with my friend Ed. The food was terrific and we ended the meal sharing chocolate encrusted Pandan Cheesecake, which cost about $12. It was delicious. Since we were not familiar with pandan, we asked the server about it, who extolled its subtle vanilla-like flavor, bright green color, and widespread use in Indonesian cuisine. When the server walked away, Ed turned to me and said, “That conversation we just had, that’s why we lost the election.”
Ed had a point.
Pandan cheesecake consumption reveals disposable income and foodie tastes. It may also show a tendency to waste money – a lot of people think it wasteful to pay $12 for an individual exotic dessert when you can get a whole frozen Sarah Lee cheesecake at Walmart here in Jackson for $4.98.
On its own, the waste may be excusable. Until pandan-eaters start to make fun of Sarah Lee aficionados on social media.
Donald Trump is not a pandan guy. His lack of elite tastes are an asset to him. Especially when the pandan-eaters make fun of his putting ketchup on his well-done steak, his swoop-over hair, and the ill-fitting tuxedo he wore at dinner with the Queen.
Just cut it out. Stick to how Trump’s policies hurt people and damage the country. Excise from conversation any notion that elite tastes rule – or should.
In a democracy, Ivy League grads are not better than those whose last degree was from their local community college. Those who vacation on Martha’s Vineyard are not better than those who go up to the lake. And pandan-eaters are not in charge of devotees of Sarah Lee.
Victims and Executioners
Adding to a confessional of my own tastes, I acknowledge that Albert Camus’ essays on being neither victims nor executioners are core to my world view. Camus wrote that, “In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, not to be on the side of the executioners.” (He wrote it in French. I don’t read French.)
Generally, liberals are not on the side of executioners, but there are more victims and more executioners than many acknowledge.
I have never polled the question of whether people believe they have been the victim of the arbitrary and unfair exercise of power, but I suspect just about everyone has felt a victim of that experience. There are the patterns of discrimination – systemic racism and sexism – but also the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracies and bosses, and the feeling of being unheard, misheard, or misunderstood by people who have power over you.
Some of the ways people are treated unfairly have policy remedies – I wish Democrats would discuss the overtime rules more than they do – but others are just there. People are not looking to elected leadership for redress of all the ways life is unfair. Still, it would behoove leaders to recognize and acknowledge that life is unfair for almost everyone.
A whole lot more people face executioners and warrant support than we often recognize. When we fail to acknowledge them and their struggles, we risk their choosing – when they have the chance – to become executioners themselves.
I am generally uncomfortable with the idea of zero tolerance – it proscribes a world without ambiguity or exceptions – even when zero tolerance is for unambiguously bad behaviors like hate speech, drunk driving, and unwanted touching. Vaunting the idea of zero tolerance can take a judgment designed to protect a victim, and turn it into an act of execution.
I would like to think, for example, that all men will respect all women all of the time and never treat them as objects. After all, the Bible says (Matthew 5:28) “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Former President Jimmy Carter, a man who knows his Bible, acknowledged to Playboy Magazine that he had committed “lust in his heart many times.” It happens. Among all genders, binary and non-binary.
Racist images are common among white Americans. Almost everyone has unfairly treated someone as “the other.” Or made an assumption about skill or character based on appearance.
Oppose bad behaviors that make people victims. Declare that hate speech, drunk driving, and unwanted touching are wrong. But it is a political and arguably a moral error to decide that those who have practiced a bad behavior should be the objects of zero tolerance. Argue, persuade, point out the error of their ways – and prosecute them when a crime is committed. Don’t make people the victims of zero tolerance in the name of tolerance. Only the very few who are entirely guilt-free will respond to that.
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So what does all this have to do with Medicare for All?
I don’t know if people are willing to risk losing something they have for something that may be better. It requires a leap of faith. I know they will not trust someone whom they perceive as elitist or who fails to recognize that people are nervous about the exercise of power, which in their experience is rarely benign.
The perception that Joe Biden is more electable than Elizabeth Warren is in part because he does not have the image of being a pandan-eater. And he certainly knows that life is unfair.
Elizabeth Warren, whose biography to a point is less elite than his, can gain on trust and empathy over the next five months. If she does make those gains, the policy nuances of Medicare for All versus a public option seem unlikely to be dispositive in a November match-up that includes either of these candidates.