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Purity tests: the future of politics?

| Thursday, January 30, 2020

I couldn’t put it better than ​CNN​: “​Bernie Sanders​ is facing a backlash from some Democrats after his campaign trumpeted an endorsement from comedian Joe Rogan, a popular podcast and YouTube talk show host with a history of making racist, homophobic and transphobic comments.”

In 2018, Rogan’s podcast was the ​second-most downloaded​ podcast on iTunes; the New York Times ​described him as helping to launch the surprise candidacy of Andrew Yang, who has outperformed and outlasted many more traditionally experienced candidates. The Sanders camp, then, and the left of the Democratic Party in general, should be happy to have him — shouldn’t they?

Evidently, not everyone thinks so. As both CNN and the Times make clear, Sanders has received significant criticism for touting Rogan’s endorsement. Various writers and media critics have spoken out against Rogan’s past, including comments attacking transgender people and hosting Alex Jones, the infamous host of InfoWars. These same critics have gone after Sanders for advertising Rogan’s endorsement, claiming it is not an achievement of which one should be proud.

This sequence follows a pattern of testing for purity on the Democratic left which has purposefully alienated politicians and voters alike. If you do not agree with the most progressive Democrats on every policy issue, tread carefully — you will not be welcomed with open arms, if at all.

Take Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii congresswoman and another candidate for the Democratic nomination. In the October Democratic Debate, Tulsi referenced a slogan that, as ​Vice​ points out, was quite popular only 20-to-30 years ago: “safe, legal and rare.” This catchphrase encapsulates the idea amongst certain pro-choice advocates that abortion, even if morally troublesome, can be minimized if it is also legally protected. Gabbard was ​lambasted​ for that reference. Critics claimed the phrase “stigmatizes abortion at a crucial moment” and argued Gabbard was not a pro-choice advocate, despite explicitly arguing for the legal protection of abortion.

Certain forces in the Democratic Party clearly wish to exclude individuals who express ideas they find distasteful. To think about why this wish is a problem, I’ll first put forward what I think is its best defense, and then discuss why that defense remains deeply flawed.

The American left claims to seek protection of all people from violence and oppression; as ​Sanders’ website​ puts it, “the movement we build together can achieve economic, racial, social and environmental justice for all.” That’s a tall order, one that requires a unified force willing to stand up for absolutely everybody, including those who are drastically different than them. People who have a history of exclusion, and those with whom they associate, cannot be trusted with such an important task.

For starters, this argument would preclude nearly everyone from participation in the movement in question. In 1989, 57% of American adults responded negatively to ​a poll​ that asked, “Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?” That is, over half of all people over the age of 50 at some point thought sex between two men or two women not only was wrong, but should be illegal. The number today stands at 26%. Do the purity-testing Democrats really want to search everyone’s history for views which do not perfectly line up with the current platform? Would there be any supporters left?

Underlying that issue, though, is a more fundamental one. If a person is willing to support Bernie Sanders for president, Sanders and his supporters should be happy and welcome that person with open arms (as they did in the case of Joe Rogan). Clearly, the new supporter has weighed their own views against those of the candidate and come to the conclusion that the candidate deserves their support. The candidate need not, and should not, test the supporter’s politics for signs of disagreement. We live in a democratic system where the voters choose the politicians and craft the politics; here, they are being chosen by the politicians and, worse, the ideologies.

None of this is to say that there is no such thing as a problematic endorsement. David Duke, former “Grand Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, ​endorsed​ Donald Trump for the last election, leading to backlash when Trump refused to denounce the endorsement. Such a situation should not culminate in a rejection of the supporter by the candidate; if Trump truly thought he was the best person for the job in 2016, he should have been happy for another voter. However, the issue in these cases becomes the reason for the supporter’s endorsement of the candidate. What did it say about Trump that he received the endorsement of David Duke? What does it say, for that matter, about Bernie Sanders that he’s the chosen candidate of Joe Rogan? These are the important questions: whether Trump’s platform supports vehement racists, whether Sanders’ uplifts people like Joe Rogan, whoever they may be. This election should be about substance, not purity tests.

Vince Mallett is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in philosophy with a minor in constitutional studies. He is proud to hail from Carroll Hall and northern New Jersey. Vince can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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