By Ridgley Knapp
Credited Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential victory, the silent majority, that so-called majority of voters who support a candidate but wouldn’t say so out loud, has made a comeback in 2016-17. Donald Trump, even before his victory that shocked the world, claimed that the “silent majority” would carry him to the White House just as it did with Tricky Dick. He wasn’t wrong.
But another silent majority sits idly by, waiting and waiting, this majority arguably even quieter than the first- the Democratic bench.
I was fortunate enough to attend an event on February 27th entitled “the Future of the Democratic Party”, where four Democrats made their cases for how the party should react to its crushing defeats in 2010, 2014, and 2016. The panel, moderated by the University of Chicago’s David Axelrod, consisted of Symone Sanders, the press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, Patrick Murphy, a former Representative and Undersecretary of the Army, Kasim Reed, the Mayor of Atlanta, and Pete Buttigieg, the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana and a former candidate for DNC Chair.
The panel’s discussion is worth a watch in its entirety, but two points ended up sticking with me.
The first point, made by Mayor Reed, is the basis of why I write this today.
“We need candidates to go out and fight these fights and make these arguments. You’ve got to feel like beating somebody. The thing I see about Democrats and Republicans is that we want to serve, and they want to win.”
The Democratic Party is the party of fairness, the party of equality. As Mayor Buttigieg put it, we’re the party of “freedom, fairness, family, and future”. But like Mayor Reed put it, we’re not willing to go to the mat. Some Democrats, of course, are. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), when asked recently if he’d seek reelection, replied, “Of course … I only run one way: scared as a jackrabbit”. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), though stoking ire on the left, is doing all he can to retain his seat in a state that Trump won by over 40 points.
These men, however, are both incumbents. I’m talking about the bench. Where’s the damn bench?
Everyone always looks at the Republican bench for inspiration. The Republican primary showed this- they had 17 candidates, from red states and blue states, from California to Louisiana. Even beyond those who ran, there are other names thrown about who will run for President in some number of years. The junior Senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton. Mia Love, the first female, African-American Republican elected to Congress, from Utah. Et cetera.
But where’s the damn Democratic bench? The real silent majority? They’re dead silent, but they have to be out there. And we come to the second point that stuck with me, provided by Rep Murphy:
“If you love your country and want to say something about it, if you want to speak to peoples’ hearts and not just their heads … Run for office. Don’t wait for your turn. Run. If it’s in a primary, it’s in a primary. Put your name on a ballot, organize, and fight for the values you believe in.”
The Democratic bench is quiet because they’re being too polite. Bernie was onto something that Democrats and we as a party have to learn on the national scale: if you think you can do a better job at representing your friends, neighbors, even people who you don’t like and don’t like you, run for office. Don’t wait, challenge someone in a primary. That’s where rising stars first take off. Look at P.G. Sittenfeld, a City Counselor from Cincinnati, Ohio. He looked at the Senate race in Ohio and said to himself, I can better represent these people than Senator Portman (R-OH) can. It didn’t matter that former Governor Ted Strickland was also vying for the job. In the end, Strickland won the primary 65-22, and went on to lose the general election to Portman 58-37. And yet here I am extolling a city counselor who lost a primary by 43 percent.
Perhaps that was a bad example. Let’s turn eastward, to Massachusetts’s 6th Congressional District, represented since 2014 by Rep. Seth Moulton. Did Moulton sit and wait for his turn in Congress, like many other possible Democrats have in the past? No. In 2014, he knocked out nine-term incumbent Congressman John Tierney in the Democratic primary 51-40. Yet Moulton had “refused to distinguish himself from Tierney on most issues”, instead running on his “freshness and dynamism”. And it worked.
This is anything but an endorsement of unnecessary primary challenges to sitting incumbents, nor does it encourage contentiousness within the party. On the topic of the recent DNC race, Mayor Reed made it clear: once there is a leader, you fall in, and you follow their orders. The same logic applies to primary challenges. Much like P.G. Sittenfeld, if you’re beaten, you fall in behind the nominee.
There are 600,000 elected offices in the United States, many of which are never contested in elections. Run for something, and run hard. Don’t wait for an opening; make an opening.