Reflections on sometimes supporting politicians who make us sick, and on politicians and musicians who raise us up
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington
Last Thursday night, while watching MSNBC, I was taken aback to see a new TV ad from the re-election campaign of Senator Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana). Donnelly, along with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, has long positioned himself as a right-wing Democrat: “pro-life,” willing (and eager) to work “across the aisle,” opposing “extremists of the left and of the right,” and standing strongly for so-called “Hoosier values” and the so-called “Hoosier common sense middle.” He has already indicated his willingness to support Trump’s border wall; has met with Brett Kavanagh and is quite “open” to confirming his Supreme Court nomination; and recently ran a TV ad commending Trump for signing a minor healthcare bill called “The Right to Try Act” (the ad ends with Trump signing the law and then saying “Senator Donnelly, thank you very much”).
I have never much liked Joe Donnelly, and his solicitude to the far-right has long revolted me. But, having lived in Southern Indiana for the past 31 years, and being acutely aware of the ways that this part of the country differs from the New York city of my youth, I have understood that Donnelly can surely lay claim to the “center” of the Democratic party in the state of Indiana; that the things he stands for, and probably believes, are things that a great many people in Indiana support; and he is a pretty conventional politician who wants to stay in office and will play to his perceived electoral base to do so. And so I’ve supported him. I voted for him. And last Spring I even attended a local event for him, and donated to his campaign. Because his opponent—far-right Republican challenger Mike Braun—is much worse, and because especially now, it is important to regain Democratic control of Congress.
A few weeks ago I blanched when I first saw Donnelly’s “Right to Try” ad linking him to Trump. But I also knew that he is fighting a bitter campaign against a well-heeled Trumpist challenger who is slandering him, and doing everything possible to cut Donnelly off from any swing voters, and that in a way, his ability to actually furnish a video of Trump praising him represents a kind of political “epater le bourgeoisie,” Indiana-style. In addition, the bill he was celebrating was a bill making experimental medical treatments available to terminally ill people. Who can fault him for that, right? So I gagged at the ad, and then put it out of my mind, unsurprised. That’s electoral politics in Indiana.
But last Thursday’s ad was something else. While it was not the first time Donnelly had played to the Trump base—an earlier press release even proudly declared that “Joe Donnelly votes with President Trump 62% of the time”—this time Donnelly crossed a line. For his ad essentially embraced the core Trumpist talking points, almost repeating verbatim the claims contained in an ad of his opponent, the enthusiastic Trumpist Mike Braun: support for Trump’s wall, support for “strong borders,” opposition to “sanctuary cities,” and the notion that these things are necessary to protect the citizens of Indiana from an otherwise looming danger. [Note: as of this writing, the ad in question, which continues to air frequently on television, is no longer easily accessible online; a Google search produces a caption “New TV ad highlights Joe’s support for strong border security,” linked to the Donnelly for Senate campaign site; but the link now reads “Not Found.” Another link to the campaign site announces “In the News: New TV ad highlights Joe’s support for strong border security as part of fixes for broken immigration”; but the link itself seems bleached of all reference to the ad. Interesting.]
Here is the ad:
And so I immediately responded on Facebook:
I just saw Joe Donnelly’s new TV ad.
Its message is very plainly stated: “Joe Donnelly is against open borders and sanctuary cities, he is tough on immigration, and he supports Trump’s border wall.”
Anyone here who knows me knows that I do not need to be schooled about the logic of lesser evilism. I will vote for Donnelly in November.
But his politics revolts me, and I will welcome the possibility of Donnelly being challenged in the 2024 primary.
I know he wants to get re-elected. I know he wants to say what he thinks many Hoosiers think. He’s an “ordinary Hoosier” and a “common man.” Fine. His new ad is very “common,” as in “base” and “low.” Gutter low.
He does NOT represent a vision for the future that I find compelling or even worthy. That he is now running not simply by praising Trump for signing a minor health care bill that helped some poor sick Hoosier kid, but by praising Trump on immigration, is disgusting. And I don’t see how anyone who is being honest, and who has been articulating outrage at the authoritarianism of Trump, can think otherwise: Donnelly’s ad about immigration and “sanctuary cities” is disgusting and despicable. Indeed, if you think about it for two seconds, you will realize that it is a calculated display of contempt for what the entire community of progressive Democrats has been saying and doing for two years.
I know that some friends who I respect will be undeterred. They will give him money, and campaign for him. I will not. I will vote for him, while holding my nose. But I do not respect him. I’d rather give my money to Beto O’Rourke in Texas. That guy has a spine, and he stands up for things worth supporting. He could have played to the Texas yahoos. But he didn’t. He intelligently defended African-American NFL players protesting the national anthem. THAT is impressive. Donnelly’s ad is simply a cave to the Republican far-right.
I am proud to count among my Bloomington friends and colleagues some terrific people who are serious activists on behalf of social justice, who work hard to revitalize the Democratic party in Monroe County and throughout the state and country, and who support Donnelly—precisely the people who I imagined to be “undeterred.”
One of them, a great person for whom I have the highest respect, responded to my post in a very serious way:
This ad you describe is revolting, damaging, wrong, hurtful, disgusting – I absolutely agree with you there. This part of your post, however, gives me pause: “I know that some friends who I respect will be undeterred. They will give him money, and campaign for him. I will not. I will vote for him, while holding my nose.” My own view is this is not so clear, that it’s more complicated than this wording suggests. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I have some questions. Putting aside Donnelly himself: given the extraordinary challenges we face and the desperate need to repudiate Trump and the likelihood of another Supreme Court vacancy next year and the possibility of impeachment if we take the House (or at least meaningful oversight) — I could go on, but you get the idea — don’t we have to fight hard for any chance to take back the Senate? So if we agree we need to vote for him, why don’t we have to do more? Is there really such a distinction between the justifications for voting for him and getting out the vote for him.
This response is compelling, because it comes from someone to take seriously, and because it does raise a compelling question, which I paraphrase thus: “if you agree that it is important to see Donnelly elected, then how can you draw the line as you do? Don’t we need to do whatever we can to see him elected, not because we love him, but because his election is important?”
Here is how I responded, with a few personal references altered:
Great response. I was expecting this response, and from you! I don’t have a knock-down answer, and surely not one that will convince you. Here’s my answer: (a) I won’t do more because I am really sickened by him, a subjective experience that has bearing on how I allocate my time, energy, money, and (b) I do intend to give money to Beto O’Rourke, and also to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, because those candidacies, in my opinion, are real investments in the future. I do not regard Donnelly as part of the change I can believe in. He’s the incumbent. He has the advantages of incumbency, including some machine money. He has my vote. Nothing more. And he really does make me sick. And I really do think Trump is an aspiring fascist, and so any politician that celebrates Trump, for whatever reason, has lost my respect. Completely.
In my “Blue Monday” columns over the past year, and in my Public Seminar writing more generally since 2016, I have been continually addressing two themes that are obviously linked: (i) the danger represented by Trump and Trumpism, which makes the political defeat of both Trump and Trumpism an urgent ethical and political commitment, and (ii) the genuine practical dilemmas and ethical challenges that present themselves to opponents of Trumpism, which often require us to make and defend complex and hard choices that others who oppose Trumpism will not or cannot make, and to find ways to work together nonetheless, in a spirit of agonistic respect.
Our political choices can often seem like stark, either/or decisions. And in especially dark times, our choices are made against the background of some pretty stark alternatives. I believe that in broad terms the alternative right now is between a right-wing authoritarian, “aspirational fascism” (the term is Bill Connolly’s) and the defense and improvement of a flawed and oligarchic liberal democracy. But I also believe that even within that frame, a range of choices are possible; it is possible to do more than one thing at a time; and it is possible to wholeheartedly pursue one’s aspirations and strong ethical convictions by at one time supporting a candidate who corresponds strongly to these convictions, and at a later time, if one’s candidate loses to a less satisfactory competitor, to support that candidate if the alternative is much worse. I believe my own publicly articulated positions about Sanders and Clinton in 2016 furnish one example of what I mean. Over time my allegiances and positions shifted as the situation changed. More important, while exchanges with some who thought otherwise were often frustrating and sometimes testy, I tried hard to express myself without disparagement, and to keep lines of communication open.
I did not and do not think of Hillary Clinton in the same way that I think of Joe Donnelly. I could always see reasons to support her, and I never felt like I had to “hold my nose” to do so once she won the primary and was the Democratic candidate. But even here, one can say that the main reason I urged the support of Clinton was “lesser evilism”—not because she promised exciting major change, for she did not, but because she was far superior to Trump, whose dangerousness was clear and present to me and to a great many others.
In the case of Donnelly, my vote for him will be sheer and unadulterated “lesser evilism.”
I do not like him. I disagree with much of his agenda. I despise the way he has now chosen to play to the far-right. And yet he is far superior to Trumpist Mike Braun and it is imperative to support as many Democratic victories as possible.
And so I declare that I will vote for him now, gagging as I do so, and then oppose him six years from now when he again seeks the Democratic nomination.
And that while I think it is important for him to win, there is a limit to what I can do for him if I am to be true to myself, to the many Latinx people I know, to many friends, and to my sense of commitment to future generations, which requires me to think beyond the now.
I do think it is important for him to win. But he has defined himself politically in a way that makes it impossible for me to be an enthusiastic supporter. He has shown contempt for some of my core values. And he has showed solicitude to those who despise what I am and what I stand for—the people who will celebrate his pro-Trump ads. Hopefully he will gain the votes of those people. But I will not help him to get those votes or any other votes by dressing up his political persona. I will not canvass for him, nor send money to him so he can run more of his pro-Trump ads, ads which might help him get some votes, but also further inflame resentment and incite irrationality, thus poisoning our politics.
I won’t do more because it feels wrong to support him, but also because I have better things to do. Each of us faces scarcities of time, energy, money, and even attention. Politics is not everything. But even for those of us for whom politics is almost everything, in the U.S. alone, there are 435 House races this November, and over 30 Senatorial races, and a great many state and local races. Many of those command my enthusiasm, and my support, much more strongly than the Indiana Senate race does, some because they matter as much if not more than the Indiana race right now, and some because they represent future possibilities that deserve support now if they are to bear fruit later.
I’ve already explained why I am a strong supporter of Democrat Liz Watson, a terrific candidate working extremely hard to retake Indiana’s 9th Congressional district. Watson has a very strong progressive record and platform. She is also a native of southern Indiana who is running a strong and savvy campaign that appeals to the bread and butter concerns of ordinary Hoosiers. She is attuned to the mores of her constituents. She also has a strong moral character and the courage of her convictions, and she could never do what Donnelly has done.
I’ve also written about why I support the candidacy of DSA activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes in the race to represent New York’s 14th Congressional district. Ocsio-Cortes is a hugely impressive activist-turned-politician, and both her approach to grass roots politics and her “democratic socialist” ideas are a huge breaths of fresh air.
And as I stated on Facebook, I find the insurgent Texas Senate campaign of Beto O’Rourke much more compelling than Donnelly’s disturbing incumbent campaign (I am pleased to note that both Watson and O’Rourke were among the “10 Progressive Candidates We’re Keeping Our Eyes on for the Midterms” highlighted by the Nation in April 2018). One reason is that O’Rourke is seeking to defeat Ted Cruz, one of the most vile conservative Republicans in U.S. politics, and his upset victory would be enormous. A second is simply that I admire the way that O’Rourke has refused to play to Cruz’s base, and has bravely stood up to the far right when he might well have chosen to remain silent. Last week O’Rourke was asked by a veteran what he thinks about NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. He could have evaded the question. He could have pulled a Donnelly, and said something about how “Texans are patriots,” or about how Jerry Jones is a visionary owner of the Dallas Cowboys, or whatever. But instead, he spoke in support of kneeling African-American football players and of all protestors.
It is not only that he said this. It is the way he said it. With articulate conviction and a real sense of history. Read his words, reprinted in the Guardian:
The question is, how do you feel about NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem? And is it disrespectful to this country, to the flag, to service members who are right there tonight, where it is tonight, in Afghanistan, and those former service members, retirees and veterans, who are here with us today? Thank you each for your service.
My short answer is no, I don’t think it’s disrespectful. Here is my longer answer – but I’m gonna try to make sure I get this right, because I think it’s a really important question. And reasonable people can disagree on this issue. Let’s begin there, and it makes them no less American to come down on a different conclusion on this issue. Right? You can feel as the young man does, you can feel as I do, you are every bit as American all the same.
Someone mentioned reading the Taylor Branch book – Parting the Waters: [America in] the King Years. When you read that book and find out what Dr King and this non-violent peaceful movement to secure better – because they didn’t get full – civil rights for their fellow Americans, the challenges they faced, those that died, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, for the crime of trying to be a man, trying to be a woman, in this country. The young girls who died in the church bombing, those who were beaten within an inch of their life crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with John Lewis. Those who were punched in the face, spat upon, dragged out by their collar from the Woolworth lunch counter, for sitting with white people at the same lunch counter in the same country where their fathers may have bled the same blood on the battlefields of Omaha Beach or Okinawa or anywhere where anyone served this country.
The freedoms we have were purchased not just by those in uniform – and they definitely were – but also by those who took their lives into their hands riding those Greyhound buses, the Freedom Riders, in the deep south, in the 1960s, who knew full well they would be arrested, and they were – serving time in the Mississippi state penitentiary. Rosa Parks getting from the back of the bus to the front of the bus.
Peaceful, non-violent protest – including taking a knee at a football game – to point out that black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement, without accountability and without justice. And this problem, as grave as it is, is not gonna fix itself. And they’re frustrated, frankly, with people like me, and those in positions of public trust and power who have been unable to resolve this or bring justice for what has been done and to stop it from continuing to happen in this country.
And so non-violently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee, to bring our attention and our focus to this problem, to ensure that we fix it. That is why they do it, and I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, anyplace. Thank you very much for asking the question. I appreciate it.
That is change I can believe in.
Beto O’Rourke is running for Senate in Texas, a “red state” if there was one. He currently serves in Congress as a representative of El Paso, a Texas city on the U.S.-Mexican border. While Donnelly, Mr. Hoosier, whose state is bordered by Illinois and Kentucky, denounces “sanctuary cities” and supports “Trump’s border wall,” O-Rourke is principled enough, and brave enough, to vocally oppose the wall and to call is what it is—“racist.” Here is O’Rourke, standing outside the Texas Capitol, carefully explaining to reporters who he opposes Trump’s border policies:
It is amazing to me how many Trump-supporting voters are willing to embrace Trump’s racist rhetoric and border policies while simultaneously enjoying the services bestowed upon them by Mexican or Central American restaurant workers, landscape workers, hotel workers, and housecleaners; rooting for baseball teams powered by Latinx athletes; and embracing Latinx entertainers (there is nothing new here. In Spike Lee’s brilliant 1989 film Do the Right Thing, John Tuturro’s character, the racist son—who has kinky hair and has a mad crush on a Black woman—lists his sports heroes, every one of whom is Black). The recent TV commercials for Modelo beer are so brilliant, and effective, because they make so vividly clear how essential are Mexican people to every aspect of American society.
Here is one:
Here is another:
In a way, we are all Mexican. Emilio Estefan, the Cuban-American record producer and husband of the famous singer Gloria Estefan—she of the once-hugely popular band “The Miami Sound Machine”—indeed responded to the first glimmerings of Trumpist anti-Mexican racism in 2015 by producing a terrific “We are the World”-type music video, “We’re All Mexican”:
Featured in the video is Carlos Santana, musical legend and one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Santana, a Mexican-American and cultural icon, has spoken out against the “darkness” of Trump, and has also publicly supported Colin Kaepernick’s protest (“I love it. I salute my brother”). More importantly, his band, “Santana,” which began in San Francisco in 1966 as “The Santana Blues Band,” has for decades played a hugely important role in injecting Latin rock music into the mainstream of U.S. and indeed world culture. As of 2010, the band had sold over 100 million records; had four Billboard #1 albums; and won ten Grammy awards and three Latin Grammy awards. There is no American popular culture today without Carlos Santana, who was born in a small town in Mexico and naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1965.
Santana is one of millions of Americans, some holding U.S. citizenship and many deprived of this status, who give the lie to Trump’s vile rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. Democratic politicians like Joe Donnelly and Joe Manchin who sign on to any aspect of Trump’s rhetoric about “protection” of “strong borders” and the dangers of “sanctuary cities” might be “better” than Trump on other issues. Their capitulation to Trumpist rhetoric might be opportunism more than conviction, which means that under other circumstances, they might behave differently—and also means that they lack any moral character and cannot be trusted to defend basic values. But in the end, they can never be anything more than lesser evils. There is a reason to vote for them in November, and to hope that they win. Because their opponents are much worse, and because it is important, right now, to put an end to Republican dominance of the national government. But those of us who are serious about human rights and democratic equality have every reason to be “tired of waitin’ and foolin’ around,” and to “find somebody who won’t make me feel like a clown.” The Democratic party needs more people like Beto O’Rourke, and Alexandria Occasion-Cortes, and Liz Watson, and fewer people like Joe Donnelly and Joe Manchin. Those citizens of Indiana and West Virginia who like such politicians should surely support them. But those of us who hope for something better must commit ourselves to supporting candidates who represent our values, and to working hard to explain and publicize these values, so that they can become politically winning values not simply in places like California and New York but in places like Indiana, West Virginia, and Texas.
And so I close with two renditions of Santana’s famous hit song, “Evil Ways.” This version is the very famous live at performance at Woodstock in 1969:
And this is a more recent version, performed live at the Las Vegas “House of Blues” in 2016 :
Message to Joe Donnelly, Joe Manchin, and other conventional red-state Democrats willing to embrace aspects of Trumpism in the name of “the will of the people”: the current situation is so bad that we might vote for you now, but you’ve already lost us for the future. And we intend to Change Your Evil Ways.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bllomington.