The Impossible Standard Of Ideological Purity Tests

  • Ryan Ross
  • Sep 11, 2017 4:19PM

Senator Kamala Harris’ recent endorsement of Senator Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill was a major victory for the leftist wing of the Democratic Party. It was a sign that despite initial opposition to their agenda, leftists are beginning to gain more legislative traction among more mainstream Democrats. And for a party that favors incremental change, this represents a huge step forward.

That good feeling lasted maybe three days.

On Friday, POLITICO reported that some Sanders supporters were less-than-thrilled by Harris’ co-sponsoring the bill. According to the report, “Tensions boiled over recently when a handful of Sanders loyalists bashed freshman Sen. Kamala Harris — a rising star in the party and potential 2020 hopeful — as an establishment tool.”

In fairness, whatever backlash may have occurred has been limited; I haven’t seen much of any response on the left to Harris’ endorsement. But attacking for being an “establishment tool” just because she’s not Bernie Sanders is emblematic of the real damage ideological purity tests can do to a political party.

Ideological purity tests do have their uses. They can tell you whether a politician is working towards the goals they campaigned on or if they’re backing off for one of any number of reasons (special interests and donors buying their votes, for example). And they’re a good method for determining whether a candidate is suitable for what the majority wants to see from their legislators. Applying one to Hillary Clinton, for example, makes sense; anyone with a political career as lengthy as Clinton’s is bound to have one or two donors who might create a conflict of interest for the politician, so an ideological purity test is a good way to tell whether or not that politician has compromised the values that won them the office in the first place.

But that’s not how these tests usually go.

These tests have a tendency to be absurdly rigid. Leftists should be celebrating the fact that a mainstream Democrat is adopting their policies; instead, because Harris didn’t run on a platform of socialism and received campaign contributions from corporate donors, she’s automatically viewed with suspicion by leftists as co-opting their agenda to win an election.

By this metric, anybody who isn’t Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would have a hard time winning over leftists, which seems to me the definition of looking a gift horse in the mouth. Sure, Harris took a little while to warm up to Medicare for All, but when all is said and done, she now supports it. Harris went where leftists wanted her to go; is it really worth criticizing the road she took to get there?

Ironically, ideological purity tests can even hinder progress. During Hillary’s campaign last year, she was taken to task for her past statements and her voting record, and rightly so; as a result, she tried to move further left and take more progressive stances on a number of issues. And what happened? Not only was she criticized by some on the far left for ever having held those stances in the first place, she was also criticized for changing her stances.

It presents an impossible dilemma for a politician: they have to somehow be on the right side of every single issue and never change their minds; otherwise, they’ll be blasted for flip-flopping or pandering. Granted, in Hillary’s case, she’d changed her stance and her votes enough times throughout her career that the accusations of pandering were absolutely justified, but as we’re seeing with Harris, it’s not enough to end up on the right side of an issue — if you don’t start on the right side, you’re toast.

The problem with ideological purity tests is evident in the name itself: they’re too idealistic. In a perfect world, the people with the best ideas would run for — and win — elected office. But there is no such thing as the “best idea” in politics; there’s only the idea that appeals to the greatest number of voters. Politics is, by its very nature, an effort to impose some semblance of order and cooperation among large groups of people with diverse opinions and values. There is no such thing as an absolute truth in politics, just as there is no such thing as a universally-loved piece of legislation.

More to the point, there is no such thing as ideological purity; at least, not in the way it’s most commonly used in politics. No matter what a candidate believes, there will always be a large number of voters who disagree. And even if a candidate adheres to ideological guidelines (like socialism, for example) on every single issue, there will still be voters — even voters within that group — who will complain that the candidate’s stances are too perfect and, therefore, must not be sincere.

It’s time to accept that the perfect candidate doesn’t exist, and in their quest to find it, some on the far left are missing the forest for the trees. As the saying goes, slow motion is better than no motion, and by insisting that every politician adhere to a rigid and complex ideology, we’re disqualifying candidates that could serve as a bulwark against the legislative nightmares flowing from the White House. Purity is a scarce-enough quality in the real world; in politics, it’s even more rare. Let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good.