democratic primaries

Julián Castro Might Be a Believer

Julián Castro.
Julián Castro Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Julián Castro joined a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles, demanding before a crowd gathered outside LAPD headquarters that two officers be fired for killing Grechario Mack. This would’ve been unthinkable for a presidential hopeful four years ago: In the lead-up to the 2016 election, activists regularly had to confront candidates during public appearances to demand they recognize this titular truism. Most responded, at least initially, with deflection. “All lives matter” was their go-to retort, an attempt to avoid upsetting law enforcement and isolating nonblack voters who might object to being excluded from such a proclamation. The phrase became emblematic of a habit critics saw as plaguing the Democratic Party: an indulgence of “identity politics,” the cynical practice, in their estimation, of siloing constituents into separate categories based on features like race or gender identity and appealing to them on the basis of those experiences.

In reality, efforts to acknowledge the role such identifiers have played in how people interact with politics — and how policy impacts them — were objectionable to many because they shifted focus away from white heterosexuals. Without acknowledging as much, detractors in elected office and op-ed pages alike have attributed Trump’s win to its overuse, and advised future candidates against it. The 2020 hopeful who has ignored this advice most enthusiastically is Castro, who appears most days to be running the kind of campaign that BLM activists would’ve been thrilled to see in 2016. That it’s paid few dividends for him electorally seems, on one level, to vindicate the strategy’s critics. But it also raises questions about what drives him to keep beating the same drum regardless, and what material value, if any, can be derived from running the right campaign at the wrong time.

The past two election cycles have been a testament to the value of losing political runs. Bernie Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but activated a latent appetite for socialism among the electorate that continues to be one of the most influential forces in Democratic politics. Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams lost their gubernatorial races in 2018, but narrowly enough to give national audiences a blueprint for what it might take to wrest the South from Republican clutches: unabashedly progressive candidates able and willing to galvanize nonwhite voters to record turnout, who also use their platforms and influence to advance voting rights.

The material value of Castro’s floundering campaign is less evident. In an ideal world, it would prove that voters — especially black and Latino ones — will respond en masse to a candidate who builds his or her campaign around protecting the most vulnerable: poor people, disabled people, undocumented immigrants, and people caught up in the criminal-legal system. But this hasn’t borne out. He’s polling at less than one percent nationally, failed to qualify for the November primary debate, and appears likely to miss December’s as well. The confluence of circumstances contributing to his lackluster numbers — a crowded field ripe with more experienced candidates, minimal built-in base or personal wealth, a lack of national profile, and a political moment where voter anxieties around electability have left nonwhite candidates at a deficit — would be impediments either way. But he’s done himself few favors by pursuing a platform of dubious popularity aimed at helping a small subset of suffering people who have negligible political influence.

The potential upside is still there, at least for Castro personally, and perhaps for his chosen causes. All have earned some national exposure, and set him up for future speaking engagements where he can critique (and rightly so) shortcomings in the primary process and media ecology that prevented his ideas from gaining more purchase. There’s also the possibility of being tapped for vice-president — though the apparent lack of demand for what he’s supplying, as evidenced by his polling numbers, hurts his case for being capable of ushering significant constituencies into the voting booth. Then there’s the more nebulous benefit of earning long-term respect from dyed-in-the-wool progressives, especially racial-justice advocates, and their potential support should he pursue higher office at a later date. (Though he’s not exactly fulfilling the Bernie Sanders 2016 function of pulling the Democratic field leftward; that role is, once again, being played by Bernie Sanders.)

The clearest immediate win for Castro is the moral one of standing for a good cause despite its unpopularity. It’s become increasingly worth considering that he’s running for president sincerely, is fine with losing as long as he does so on his own terms, and that he really believes in the change for which he’s advocating. This makes little sense from a strategic standpoint. The point of a sincere campaign — and, to be sure, there are plenty of insincere ones — is to win, and usually to pursue any and all avenues of political pandering and moral concessions needed to do it. If that’s Castro’s game, he’s playing it poorly. If not, he seems most reliably to be setting himself up for a future rich with “Julián Castro was right in 2020. Why did nobody listen to him?”–style retrospectives in magazines like this one. And maybe he’s okay with that.

Julián Castro Might Be a Believer.