A tortoise, a hare and Democrats’ happy ending
Ellie Konfrst | Tuesday, February 23, 2021
We all know the one about the tortoise and the hare, right?
I assume I don’t need to spend time recounting the tale, the fable employed to teach every third grader in the country about the importance of hard work and perseverance. From a young age, we’re taught that “slow and steady wins the race,” and we’re warned about the dangers of embodying the proverbial hare. It’s unsurprising, then, when this same logic seeps into political conversations among adults.
I consider myself a pretty far left-leaning progressive, and have spent a fair share of my time arguing with moderate Democrats about the best way to achieve our (supposedly) shared goals. In those conversations, I’ve had the hare’s unexpected and deserved loss to the much-slower tortoise thrown in my face more than once. “Slow and steady wins the race,” they say. Aside from the obvious issues with this analogy (I’m pretty sure the hare loses because of his arrogance, not because voters had a distaste for his speed), there’s an underlying assumption being made that I don’t think is applicable. What if the tortoise and hare just weren’t running the same race?
We generally assume, by holding political opinions broadly considered “left of center,” that we all have the same end goals. Even if they’re just named in broad terms, like “universal health care” or “combating climate change,” Democrats, or left-leaning voters, are generally thought to have an agreed vision of what society should look like, and any intra-party disputes are purely disagreements about how best to achieve that vision — should we be tortoises or hares? Increasingly, though, it’s looking like that might not be the case.
In the official Democratic Party Platform in 2020, Democrats officially declared that, as a party, they believe “health care is a right for all, not a privilege for the few.” Yet, the platform does not endorse a government-run health care system, like Medicare for All, instead opting to back “universal, affordable” health care. Similarly, the platform pulls language straight from Bernie Sanders’ stump speeches on climate change — endorsing the concept of “environmental justice,” for example. Yet, again, the platform does not mention the progressive Green New Deal, focusing instead on “investments in clean energy” and “reducing air pollution.” It’s as if the tortoise and the hare have completely different finish lines — all they can seem to agree upon is that finishing races is good.
The 2020 General Election was broadly a success for those on the left, with Democrats taking back the White House, maintaining their majority in the House and eking out a majority in the Senate. However, the Democratic presidential primary was plagued with intra-party divisions, with the progressive and moderate wings of the party struggling to come to a consensus on key policy debates, and Democrats didn’t see nearly as much success in down-ballot races. As much as Democratic party leaders want to neatly comb over major disagreements within their coalition, those divisions have not disappeared just because Joe Biden was elected President. Young people, who lean progressive and seek a more progressive Democratic party, played a major role in delivering Biden’s victory, and over time they will only become a more important caucus within the party. If they want electoral success like they had in 2020, the Democratic Party needs to adapt, and to do so, they need to recognize what adaptation looks like.
Key to that adaptation is the recognition that not everyone in the Democratic coalition wants the same thing. The nomination and election of President Biden is illustrative of this. As a Democratic voter who never wanted to vote for Biden, I am the first to admit that, in the 2020 election cycle, progressives just lost. Biden was never a compromise candidate — he was always an openly moderate candidate. Unlike most other Democratic candidates, who, at one point or another claimed to support something they called Medicare for All, Biden never did. Biden has never even alluded that Medicare for All, or some form of government-provided health care, is the ultimate end goal, somewhere down the line. He thinks it’s too expensive, and he thinks it’s bad that people wouldn’t get to choose private insurance. On Medicare for All, and a multitude of other issues, Biden (and moderate Democrats at large) do not believe their proposed policies are a step on a longer path toward progressive goals. To them, their policies are the end goal.
Now, none of this is to make some bad faith argument that moderate Democrats are the same as Republicans; it is just to point out that they are also not the same as progressive Democrats. At some point, as this country’s crises of health care, climate and poverty grow increasingly dire, those on the left will have to reckon with the fact that we are not all running the same race. There is not a compromise to be made between Medicare for All and Biden’s health care goals — progressives will not be satisfied until Medicare for All becomes law, and moderates will likely oppose anything beyond Affordable Care Act reforms. Even if we agree that health care is good, at a certain point, broad platitudes like that are not enough to maintain a coalition.
In 2020, Democrats found a way to help both the tortoise and the hare win. Soon enough, though, they will both look around and realize that their racing partner is nowhere to be found. Democrats will have to realize that their intra-party conflicts are not over method and strategy, but over ideology and policy outcomes, and compromise will be increasingly hard to find. For the sake of progressive goals, and for the sake of this country, I hope they are able to recognize that soon and find ways to overcome their differences. If they don’t, we may soon be looking at a political environment where the hare loses patience, the tortoise quits early and both are overtaken by the elephant behind them.
Ellie Konfrst is a junior majoring in political science, with minors in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service and civil & human rights. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited that people will finally be forced to listen to all of her extremely good takes. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.