2018, Abdul El-Sayed, Gretchen Whitmer, Shri Thanedar — July 1, 2018 at 2:35 pm

Progressive policies are so popular even a fake Democrat could win on them


What the Michigan gubernatorial Democratic primary reveals about the thirst for progressive policies

Two huge themes have preoccupied much of the coverage of the Democratic primaries this year: There’s the “drive to elect women” story and the “progressive policies are sweeping the party even if progressive candidates aren’t” refrain.

These two themes collided Tuesday night with the primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over ten-term Democrat Joe Crowley.

Suddenly, centrists, Republicans and concern trolls of all kinds were worrying if the party is veering too far to the left. Ocasio-Cortez is a known Democratic Socialist! She wants people to have health care and housing! She defeated a stalwart Democrat whose donor roster reads like the holdings of a mutual fund!

But Ocasio-Cortez even had the best take on her election: “A major point of my campaign: in the safest blue seats in America, we should have leaders swinging for the most ambitious ideas possible for working-class Americans.”

Democrats now more than ever — to borrow Nixon’s ’68 campaign slogan — want candidates who represent America as we face an administration that strives to look like the Bushwood Country Club before Rodney Dangerfield as Al Czervik joined.

Ocasio-Cortez’s agenda is a set of demands that seem far-fetched because we have three branches of government that only worry about what the donor class wants.

I mean, imagine seeing these things as extreme:

Meanwhile, actual extremism dominates the GOP. The party’s standard-bearer backs uninsuring tens of millions, eliminating the minimum wage, AND overturning Roe v. Wade. All of these positions poll well below even Trump’s historically low approval rating.

Meanwhile Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and universal background checks are more popular with Americans than brushing is with dentists. I mean, how will a Democratic Socialist ever find anything in common with millions of American seniors who love their single payer healthcare and universal basic income?

Ocasio-Cortez’s election was historic and will likely be seen as a turning point in the history of the Democratic Party, even though it was a low-turnout race — about 10 percent of eligible voters showed up — in one of the safest districts in America.

Yet a far more revealing contest is happening in Michigan, the state Trump won by his smallest margin and a state where Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary in 2016.

Many progressives feared that the 2018 gubernatorial primary would turn into a rehash of Hillary and Bernie. With Gretchen Witmer — who served in Michigan’s state legislature for more than a decade rising to Democratic Leader in the state senate — facing Abdul El-Sayed — the former health commissioner of Detroit who is backed by Our Revolution and many veterans of the Bernie 2016 campaign — you can guess who was supposed to fit into each role.

This dynamic, thankfully, has not materialized. Instead there’s a mutation that’s far stranger and possibly even more worrisome.

Shri Thanedar, who seems to have made a small fortune in chemical-testing, has been attempting to position himself as the most progressive candidate in the primary. Polling, including a poll his campaign personally funded,  showed him near of the top of the heap — until recently, at least. Not only does it seem he’s never held any public position, he even appeared to be flirting with a run as a Republican, according to Joe DiSano.

What’s most fascinating here in the state that’s the choice of 4 of 5 of the Great Lakes that a candidate that seems entirely interested in winning has decided that the best path to the Governor’s mansion (and then the White House) is through the left. He continually calls himself “the most progressive candidate for governor.” His ads lean heavily on progressive policy that few state-wide candidates in a purple state have emphasized — like paid family leave and Medicare of All.

He told The Intercept that he’s a “fiscally-savvy Bernie” but the real savvy seems to be coming from his polling and media teams he’s funding with his own cash, almost entirely. These experts recognize that Democrats are dying to run on Democratic policies. And these policies are so popular that someone who only recently decided to call himself a progressive may even be able to win on them.

Of course, looking at the candidate’s actual actions and career it’s hard see many progressive values or any values at all.

From co-opting Frank Luntz’s right-wing “Jobs Creator” rhetoric on his Twitter bio to his attacks on his opponents for choosing public service over business to this litany of offenses collected by Eclectablog’s Chris Savage, you’d have to assume the only progressive thing about Thanedar is his campaign.

We need real progressives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, especially in our bluest districts. But we also need to recognize that our thirst for the policies that actually represent the vast majority of Michiganders and Americans is so great that we risk stumbling toward a mirage.

I’ll support the most progressive candidate in any race, especially now in our current crisis. And anyone willing to say the word “progressive” without disdain is better than Bill Schuette, Brian Calley or a virulent Islamophobe like Patrick Colbeck.

But I’d never heard of an “anti-endorsement” before I heard of Shri Thanedar. And given what he’s willing to do to sell himself, I understand the concern.