Let’s begin with the good news from last night. In Missouri, voters overwhelmingly rejected (by 2 to 1!) the “right to work” law passed by the state’s Republican legislature. This is very good news indeed. It rebuts the Republican position that American workers want laws banning job contracts requiring union membership. These laws are always touted as expanding people’s “economic freedom” because they prevent businesses from “forcing” their workers to join unions. But even Milton Friedman, in Capitalism and Freedom, pointed out that that was spurious: Actually, the laws themselves are an infringement on the classic conservative idea of “economic freedom,” because they prohibit certain kinds of “freely made” contractual arrangements.
Right-to-work laws don’t come out of a principled commitment to free markets. They’re just an attempt to destroy unions using the power of the state. Missouri voters have indicated that they’re not having it. Now, the left should try to get every other state’s right-to-work laws put up to a democratic vote. We’ll quickly see whether people agree that the “freedom to not join a unionized employer” is more valuable to them than the freedom that comes with having your interests represented at work. This is an important moment, especially because of just how overwhelming public opposition to the law was. And in Missouri of all places!
Another bit of good news from last night: In Michigan, DSA-backed Palestinian state legislator Rashida Tlaib won her primary! She’s in a deep blue district, so she is now almost certain to become the first Muslim woman ever elected to Congress. That’s a historic milestone, and very exciting. She had to defeat the local political establishment in order to pull it off, so it was far from a guaranteed victory. However, she did bring in far more money than her opponents, which may be evidence that it’s very difficult (unless you’re Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) to compete unless you’re well-funded.
Ah, but then there’s the bad news. Abdul El-Sayed did not win. This was very disappointing, because over the last few months I’ve gone from skepticism about El-Sayed to total certainty that he is exactly the sort of candidate the left needs. He had a well thought-out policy agenda, a solid background, a charismatic personality, and a powerful ability to inspire people. So many people who saw Abdul speak developed a sense of hope, and a belief in the possibilities of politics, that they had never felt before. I felt it myself: Abdul made it difficult to feel jaded or cynical about the political system, because he had such clear plans for how to use it to make people’s lives better. The young people who flocked to his campaign did it because he moved them and made them think they could actually achieve something beautiful together. His defeat will be very hard for many of them. It will be hard for me. If you didn’t see him up close, you may not realize just how good he was. But damn, he was good.
Abdul will be back, of course. And I hope that he takes the right lesson from this: not that you should try to appear more “moderate” and disguise your left politics, but that it’s a long struggle and support needs to be built bit by bit. The reason people loved Abdul was that he told the truth, and unlike so many other Democrats, he didn’t seem afraid. It seemed like he’d never back down. And that was just so refreshing. I hope he never, ever changes, and that he keeps on pushing.
What does Abdul’s loss “mean”? The New York Times said it is “a reminder that Democratic primary voters across the country are not necessarily motivated chiefly by liberal ideology.” Well, that’s technically true, but not as meaningful as it seems. The result does mean that Democratic voters don’t just vote automatically for the most progressive candidate. But nobody thinks that anyway; we all know it requires organization and money to win as well. We have to be careful about what lessons we draw from this: Leftists will point out that the other two candidates had far, far more money than El-Sayed. Millionaire businessman Shri Thanedar spent $12 million of his own money on the race, and managed to pull 17.7 percent of the vote. He seemed to be running for purely opportunistic reasons, and pretended to be a Bernie Sanders progressive despite having recently supported Republicans. He was a borderline fraud (and is actually being sued for fraud). He had once tortured a hundred beagles! I mean, Thanedar was an utterly ridiculous candidate, but he had one thing: $12 million. And he flooded the race with advertising. He was everywhere.
The fact that Shri Thanedar got 17.7 percent of the vote tells us something sad but obvious about American politics: It’s driven in large part by money. Money isn’t everything. Shri was never going to actually win. But money can do a hell of a lot. When I visited Michigan, I watched Abdul on the phone trying to convince medium-sized donors to give several hundred dollars so he could afford to run another local TV ad. He had to spend 35-40 hours per week doing this, just to have any television advertising at all. That’s a second full-time job in addition to all the other campaigning, and it’s a full-time job that Thanedar, being self-funded, didn’t need to do. The advantage that money gives you is absurd. If you don’t have it, you have no alternative but to try to build an organization from scratch, hoping you can inspire people enough to work for you for free. If you’re running on a platform that wealthy people aren’t going to like, as Abdul was, it’s going to be extremely difficult to get your word out to voters, because who will fund it? The race certainly proves, to some degree, that our politics is corrupt: A millionaire could simply buy nearly 20 percent of the vote. Others will see the result differently, and think it proves that progressive politics aren’t viable in the Midwest or whatever. I don’t think that’s tenable. Bernie Sanders won Michigan with the exact same political platform as Abdul. The ideas did not change. And let’s remember that Shri Thanedar, fraud that he was, lifted the Sanders platform as well, and ran on single-payer healthcare. If you add the two single-payer candidates together, they got very nearly half the vote.
There are other factors we can think about here, though I am not sure how to actually figure out which mattered. Abdul was young, didn’t have many political connections, hadn’t served in the state legislature. Perhaps it was just premature. Perhaps he didn’t do a good job of campaigning in rural areas, or didn’t sufficiently connect with black voters. Note that these factors are campaign-specific, though: To the degree they affected the race, they keep us from being able to draw broad conclusions about “progressivism and the midwest.” My friend Eli Massey says that one way to look at Abdul’s result is as kind of impressive, given that “El-Sayed is young, new to politics, and beat an opportunistic millionaire that was chasing after the same voter base.”
The result of the race isn’t disastrous. Gretchen Whitmer is a capable progressive legislator and a fine Democratic nominee. I happen to think that it may be more difficult than Democrats think to win in November with relatively uninspiring candidates, but we’ll see, and it could have been worse. (Shri.)
The people I saw working on the Abdul campaign were extraordinary. They were all young, energized, and hopeful. I am sure they will go on to do other incredible things, and that they will eventually win. They provided a model for how to run a good progressive campaign on almost no money. Campaign policy director Rhiana Gunn-Wright was an unsung behind-the-scenes superstar: She produced 230 pages of incredibly detailed, locally tailored left policies, including a visionary state-level single-payer plan. Her plans should be lifted and adapted by other progressive candidates around the country, and she herself should be leading a think tank. (Bernie would be a fool not to make her his own policy director in 2020. Her mind is spoken of with awe by others on the campaign.) Communications director Adam Joseph and deputy communications director Blake McCarren impressed me with their formidable dedication and skill, and let me see the campaign up close for a weekend. Campaign volunteer Jeff Sorensen took me into his home, and became my good friend. There were so many people who were so good at their jobs, and I look forward to seeing what they do next.
Okay, Abdul didn’t win. I suppose he was always a long shot, even as I convinced myself he wasn’t. The left’s default position is losing; the unexpected thing is when we win, not when we don’t. Why? Because it’s an uphill battle when you’re trying to take on the established consensus and major interest groups! The powerful are powerful. It takes time. We’ve got more work to do.
What do you do after you lose? Well, you press on, don’t you?
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