Susan J. Demas: Pundits keep telling Dems 2020 is the ‘No You Can’t’ election

Sen. Kamala Harris (R) (D-CA) and former Vice President Joe Biden (L) speak as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) looks on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Eleven years ago, Barack Obama ran an electrifying campaign of “hope and change” and won in a modern landslide, thanks to a young, diverse coalition that dreamed of turning the page on George W. Bush’s incompetence and the Iraq war.

Last year, progressive women across the country — and especially in Michigan — scored huge victories, thanks to young people and voters of color who wanted leadership, not the vile clown show from Donald Trump in Washington.

But today, the “Yes We Can” enthusiasm that helped elect our first African-American president has faded. We were only able to celebrate the 2018 reboot of the “Year of the Woman” for about five minutes before the 2020 race kicked into high gear — and in the most uninspiring way possible.

After living through the horrors of migrant kids in cages, the courts shredding abortion and LGBTQ rights and wave after wave of cuts to the safety net, many progressives are understandably exhausted and fearful. A fair number of Democrats are ready to vote for whoever seems best positioned to beat Donald Trump, even if they don’t really like the candidate or agree with someone else’s platform more.

President Barack Obama boards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, July 1, 2011. | Official White House Photo, Pete Souza, Flickr

These compromises are always part of politics. But we’d be dishonest to ignore the role of beltway pundits and media in shaping this, with their “No You Can’t” conventional wisdom on 2020.

First of all, let’s dispose of the idea that the media just report on narratives and don’t shape them. Right-wing donors wouldn’t pour billions in outlets like Fox News and Breitbart if they failed to get a return on their investment by changing the political frame. 

And trust-fund kids wouldn’t choose a low-paying profession like journalism if it was devoid of fame and prestige at the national level. What high-flying embed doesn’t want to write the story that torpedos a presidential hopeful’s campaign? 

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Many reporters do double-duty as “analysts” on cable news networks, where the rule is that you can’t say you agree with candidates on policy, so you instead pass judgment about “character” issues like past jobs, past boyfriends, the way they eat corn dogs, their tan suits, etc. 

And so Democratic and independent voters, who are already gun-shy after watching the extraordinary amount of damage a president can do when his party refuses to check him on his racist agenda, have been subjected to nonstop stories about how flawed Dem presidential contenders are (often lacking context about how they stack up to Trump).

But if you’re wondering how we got to a place where the top four has no candidates of color and only one woman — after we had the most diverse field ever — just go back to the “No You Can’t” conventional wisdom.

Pundits have told us ad nauseam that Trump’s victory in 2016 means that blue-collar Upper Midwesterners (i.e. white guys, the only ones who count) just wouldn’t vote for a Black woman (Kamala Harris) or a Latino (Julián Castro) or a Black man (Cory Booker) or any woman (Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, your mom, etc.). 

It’s not terribly hard to find voters who will say that when that’s been the hot take for more than three years.

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And so topping the polls are three flawed white dudes (because yes, everyone is flawed): Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who have mysteriously dodged the sharp-edged scrutiny Warren has (and every other woman who puts her name on a ballot). It’s progress that Buttigieg’s sexual identity hasn’t been a big issue so far, as most coverage has centered around his surprisingly huge fundraising haul, but there’s a long way to the Iowa caucuses.

Just for good measure, we have two white male billionaires, Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg, buying themselves into the race and perhaps the top tier. It’s inspiring that nobody ever tells the top .0001% what they can’t do.

Primaries are a bloodsport, so there are plenty of folks sharing memes and questionable attacks on candidates they don’t support. There are the usual declarations from people who will absolutely not vote if their candidate doesn’t win the nomination — which actually turned out not to be idle chatter for some Sanders voters in 2016.

But after this largely uninspiring primary process ends, here’s an even more depressing thought: Those attacks will become the frame for coverage of the nominee. No candidate is perfect — and Trump has shown he’ll gleefully just make stuff up, like trying to smear Biden on Ukrainian corruption.  

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Any Dem nominee will be subjected to Hillary Clinton-style “But her emails” analysis, because that’s how both-sides journalism works.  

A fallacy many Sanders supporters fell for in ‘16 was that he wasn’t as damaged as Clinton, so he would have escaped unscathed. In reality, if he wins in 2020, his record will be picked apart, too, and there will be nonstop speculative stories if suburban women (who will suddenly matter again) will be scared away because of Socialism! (the exclamation mark is always implied).

But as much as 2020 has represented a failure of imagination on the Democratic side, there is no way we can risk four more years of Trump, sliding ever-further into authoritarianism and nationalism. We’re already facing decades to fully dig out from the damage he’s done to scientific research, international relations, the climate and our values. 

Yes, we can vote him out. I’ll choose to be inspired by that thought, if not much else.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.