vision 2020

Liberal Activists Put a Unity Pledge on the Table for 2020

Can Democrats really swear off intraparty conflict in 2020? Photo: Lisa Blue/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Having argued a couple of months ago that the usual pieties about Democratic intraparty civility should have particular force going into 2020, I’m interested to see that there is at least one organized effort underway to get presidential candidates to pledge to observe certain rules in an effort to bolster the party’s general-election standing, as Ruby Cramer reports:

A national progressive group, Indivisible, is asking the 20 candidates in the Democratic presidential race to sign a pledge promising a positive, “constructive” primary that ends with all participants coming together to support the eventual nominee — “whoever it is — period….”


The Indivisible document asks candidates to agree to three terms: “make the primary constructive” and “respect the other candidates”; “rally behind the winner”; and “do the work to beat” President Donald Trump. “Immediately after there’s a nominee, I’ll endorse,” the pledge reads.

It sounds relatively uncontroversial, but it’s hard to get political candidates, who are, by and large, desperate to win, and their staff, whose lives will take a turn for the worse if they lose, to look kindly on a pledge to hold anything back. And there’s always the suspicion that talk of civility represents a sneaky effort to encourage unilateral disarmament by opponents who won’t return the favor. As Cramer notes, one candidate promised recently to stay positive while also vowing to retaliate if he comes under friendly fire:

[Bernie Sanders] has promised to run a positive campaign and support the eventual nominee — telling voters that defeating Trump, a president he describes as an existential, unprecedented threat, is his top priority — yet he has said he will fight back against a “Democratic establishment” that would rather see his campaign fail. 

The problematic underlying reality is that more than a few Democrats believe that only their faction is capable of beating Trump; different Democrats have very different theories as to “electability.” And then there are those for whom winning the “struggle for the soul of the party” trumps any general-election win.

That’s not true of most rank-and-file Democrats, who recognize that Trump is uniquely capable of weaponizing and deploying the conflicts roiling their party in an effort to drag his opponent down to his own level of unpopularity. They would almost certainly trade some transitory triumph for this or that party faction in exchange for ejecting Trump from the White House.

If the “unity pledge” is to catch on, the majority of Democrats, who do value civility and seek common ground, must impose their will on the party’s candidates and their hard-core supporters. That means supporting the unity pledge, of course, but also perhaps going further: How about a pledge not to vote in the caucuses or primaries for candidates refusing to take the pledge? That might get their attention.

Liberal Activists Put a Unity Pledge on the Table for 2020