The most notable moments of the Vice Presidential debate came when Kamala Harris and Mike Pence sparred over fracking and packing the court. Harris denied that Joe Biden would ban fracking, and danced around the question of whether a Biden administration would try to add more judges to the Supreme Court. Pence pushed the issues hard, when he wasn’t telling you he was going to cut your taxes.
During the debate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Fracking is bad, actually.” Both candidates, the only two with a chance to take the White House, spent the debate evading each other, trying to appeal to one small section of moderate voters. They didn’t feel far apart while they were doing it; in fact, they felt too similar, like they were on either side of a small circle, fighting for the middle.
The problem is that many Americans find themselves outside of that circle. The major parties have operated under the perception that most Americans are moderate and adverse to anything that might be considered radical. While there is majority support for some staunchly progressive issues — look at access to healthcare, for example, and the Black Lives Matter movement — the electoral college and the relatively small section of decisive voters render moderation a necessity.
In order to win this election, Joe Biden has set himself up as a candidate who will restore normalcy and decency after Donald Trump’s chaos. Biden is moderate on most issues and has nothing resembling strong support from those on the farther left.
It’s comical when Trump talks at the debate about how Biden is a radical leftist, then tries to speak directly to actual radical leftists and tell them Biden isn’t their guy. One can imagine them saying, “yes, Trump, we know.” Biden disavowed the Green New Deal, doesn’t want to defund the police, and doesn’t support universal healthcare. He’s an establishment guy, a continuation of moderate Obama liberalism.
For now, Biden’s the guy, but if progressive policies are going to be implemented at some point on a presidential level, what does that look like? The current system has two parties monopolizing every election and battling for inches of ground. The Republicans under the populist fear-mongering of Trump have yanked us to the right, and the Democrats have no response.
Bernie Sanders’s two runs for president are instructive. He established pretty impressive grassroots coalitions only to be maneuvered out of both races by the Democratic establishment. It was always Hilary Clinton’s race to lose in 2016, but 2020 was closer and more realistic for Sanders. On the back of a sudden turnaround, Biden pulled it out.
Much of Biden’s appeal stemmed from his perceived chances of beating Trump. He was the safe candidate, the standard politician who could knock Trump out. That, understandably, was the goal. But there is the possibility that the Republicans won’t step back from their nativist policies anytime soon. Every election, moreso than in the years before Trump, will be a direct fight for people’s rights.
In that scenario, in which the Republicans are always this dramatically bad, the Democrats might fall into the trap of nominating a boilerplate moderate every year because that’s the safe option. While progressive politicians are gaining national recognition, and have won seats in Congress, we can’t trust the Democrats to take any of that into consideration. We’ll get some new version of Mayor Pete over and over again. The Democrats will be perpetually on defense.
The electoral college deserves some portion of the blame here. If Democrats didn’t have to fight for the votes of fickle suburbanites in a handful of states every election, they could more safely pursue progressive policies. The popular vote makes everyone’s vote count the same and lessens the impact of the sparsely-populated rural states that carry too much weight in the current system.
As it stands, the two parties are not doing the job. They let Trump happen, and that indicates some inherent flaw in the system. Any democracy carries the danger of electing an unqualified demagogue, but it’s up to the people (or, more specifically, the leaders) to prevent that from happening.
I don’t know how the system itself could improve. I’d argue that dramatic change can be made within these current confines. That means lessening the power of corporations and special interest groups to make the parties more authentic to the people. (Biden has some good ideas here.)
Activism is important, and voting for progressive down-ballot candidates can effect change on a local level. These grassroots efforts are how progress is made. Overcoming the current set-up, of two-party moderation and Republican ghoulishness, is worth it.