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The novel coronavirus outbreak is shining a light on what all but corporate Democrats—and truthfully, even quite a few of them—have known for some time. Unjustifiable inequality in healthcare, educational opportunity, housing, and income are damaging not only to “the poor” but to the entire country as well. As a former Republican who became a Democrat who became a Democratic Socialist, I’ve seen this shift to the left among a growing number of friends and acquaintances over the past decade. Some moderates still worry about progressives demanding too much from their candidates, but what was acceptable in the past is no longer sufficient. It wasn’t true before COVID-19 cases started surging across the country, but elite Democratic leaders and corporate media can no longer prevent everyone from seeing the evidence right in front of them. Voters have a new level of expectation.

Democratic Voters

I’d already earned three English degrees before I started working on a degree in Biology. While some of my Biology Lab 1001 classmates struggled, I routinely earned a 95 or 100 on every quiz. After nine years of college classes, I knew perfectly well how to be a good student. All I had to do was review my notes three times before class and I was set.

Or so I thought.

Life changed when I enrolled in a sophomore level Cell and Molecular Physiology class. I found myself muddling along with B’s until mid-term, when I finally started earning A’s again. Despite all my previous coursework, much of it even at the graduate level, it turned out I still needed to up my game. Meeting with my professor in her office, I confessed, “It took a while for me to adjust to this new level of expectation.”

She nodded knowingly.

In my senior level Biochemistry, I filled out almost 500 index cards per exam, drawing molecules and complicated molecular pathways. For that one class, I learned what would have equaled the coursework for three or four junior level classes.

I don’t know a single progressive who is insisting on everything. We’re not expecting Utopia. But we do expect more than freshman or sophomore-level rights.

Moderate Democrats criticize progressives for having a litmus or purity test. “It’s your way or the highway,” they complain. “You need to be flexible and get what you can. If you insist on all or nothing, you’ll get nothing. And you’ll take the rest of us down with you.”

I don’t know a single progressive, though, who is insisting on everything. Even countries with universal healthcare and tuition-free college still have plenty of problems. We’re not expecting Utopia. But we do expect more than freshman or sophomore-level rights.

Rights, by definition, aren’t a luxury. Was there a financial cost to ending slavery? Was there a cost to gaining suffrage for women? To guaranteeing marriage equality? The specific dollar figure isn’t the important question. All people deserve to be free, whether there is a small cost, a moderate cost, or any other level of cost. The truth is, when all costs are taken into account, it’s always less expensive to “give” people basic human rights.

Too many moderates seem to have only one non-negotiable demand—that the candidate be a Democrat. When I began my Biology degree, I hadn’t taken a math class since high school and needed to enroll in two remedial classes to catch up before I could tackle Physics or Chemistry. My professors didn’t lower their standards. I had to rise to meet the requirements.

A remedial level of non-negotiables isn’t a viable path for a Democratic candidate anymore.

But my recent conversation with a moderate gay friend didn’t go well. “Would you vote for a Democrat who didn’t support marriage equality?”

“We already have marriage equality.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

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“Well, I voted for Obama before he endorsed marriage equality.”

“You still haven’t answered my question. Would you support a candidate now who spoke against same-sex marriage?”

My friend still refused to answer, so I moved on.

“Would you support a candidate who was against a woman’s right to choose?”

“If my only other option was a Republican, then yes.”

“And if you have other Democratic candidates who do support a woman’s autonomy over her own body?”

My friend frowned.

“Would you vote for a Democrat who wanted to eliminate Social Security and Medicare?” I went on.

“No Democrat is going to move backward.”

“Would you vote for a Democrat who refused to stop separating children from their parents? Would you vote for a Democrat who felt racial justice had already been achieved and needed no further effort? Would you vote for a Democrat who threatened to pull out of NATO? Who sold off our national parks? Who didn’t believe the disabled deserved rights?”

The fact is we all have non-negotiables when making decisions on which candidate to support.

Healthcare is a human right. Tuition-free college and vocational training are non-negotiable. Aggressive, immediate action on the climate crisis is non-negotiable. The coronavirus shows the futility of allowing elite political leaders or corporate media to pretend these “unrealistic demands” are only items on a wish list. They are quite literally the difference between life and death, both for individuals and for the nation as a whole.

That’s especially true for the Democratic Party, which cannot expect to pass Local or General Election 2020 if they don’t meet a higher level of expectation.

My Biochemistry professor didn’t grade on a curve. If we answered a complicated essay question with 95% accuracy, we didn’t get any points at all for that answer. Our democracy isn’t in kindergarten any longer. We’re not high school students. We’re not freshmen college students. We are the teachers, and we can no longer accept candidates unable to comprehend that casually reviewing their notes three times before an exam isn’t going to earn them an A this time.

Voters aren’t giving candidates honorary degrees. If Democratic candidates across the country want a passing grade, they must adjust to a new level of expectation.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend