What is Progressivism?: Heath Mello, Bernie Sanders, and the Left’s Identity Crisis


Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. // Photo Credit: Huffington Post.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. // Photo Credit: Huffington Post.

As it has so often done in recent months, the progressive corner of the internet exploded in a storm of debate last week. This time, the fight had to do with Heath Mello, the Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) campaigned for Mello on April 20 as part of his joint “unity tour” with Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic Party. The controversy began when, on the same day, NARAL Pro-Choice America, a reproductive rights charity, issued a statement criticizing what they perceived as Mello’s anti-choice position. In the strongly-worded statement, NARAL said that “the actions today by the DNC to embrace and support a candidate for office who will strip women—one of the most critical constituencies for the party—of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid.”

In issuing the statement, NARAL specifically alluded to the fact that in 2009, Mello, then a member of the Nebraska state legislature, voted for a bill requiring doctors to tell women considering abortion that they had the option of seeing an ultrasound of their fetus.*

Sanders and the DNC stood by their choice to support Mello, with Sanders telling NPR,

“If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation… And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.”

Cue the uproar. Many progressives were especially upset because of the hypocrisy of Sanders endorsing Mello while, in the same week,expressing hesitancyto support Jon Ossoff, the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s sixth congressional district special election (and fellow Hoya), whose progressivism the Vermont senator questioned. (Sanders later released a statement in which he endorsed Ossoff.)

The ire on the left was not only directed at Sanders and Perez, however. Progressives also expressed their disapproval of Mello himself, who, through the amplification effect of the internet, was quickly portrayed as an anti-women’s rights caricature, a progressive in name only. Reality, of course, is much more complicated. In response to the controversy, Mello, a Roman Catholic, told the Huffington Post that “while my faith guides my personal views, as mayor I would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care.” Additionally, Planned Parenthood issued Mello a 100% approval rating in 2015.

For a moment, however, let’s leave this clearly nuanced issue behind and imagine a hypothetical scenario that is more cut-and-dry. Consider, if you will, a Democratic mayoral candidate who is pro-life but otherwise holds progressive values.**  Let’s imagine that this hypothetical pro-life Democratic candidate is running against a Republican who holds conservative values (including being pro-life). Assume that these are the only two candidates running in the race. What would you, the voter, do?

As the proud owner of a uterus (and, more importantly, as someone who respects the fundamental humanness and agency of uterus-owners), I would find it difficult to vote for a pro-life politician. Would I refuse to vote for them, choosing instead to stay home and let the conservative candidate win? Probably not. But what if our hypothetical “progressive” candidate were anti-choice and also opposed the legalization of marijuana? What if they were anti-choice and opposed affirmative action? What if they were anti-immigration? Essentially, at what point does a progressive stop being a progressive?

While attempting to define the limits of progressivism may seem like a mere thought exercise, it has real-world significance. At a time when the left is so internally divided, with those who seek or have recently sought to lead the party being attacked by other members of the left as “too liberal” or “not liberal enough,” it is imperative that progressives decide what we stand for and what we are fighting for.

Should we demand more ideological rigidity from progressive candidates than from progressive voters? Should we support or shun a candidate like Mello, whose personal views differ from his political views? Should we hold progressive candidates for local office to the same ideological standards as candidates for state office or candidates for national office? Can candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party hold more moderate views if it means they might be able to win in red cities, districts, or states? Can we champion progressive, liberal, or even far-left values while still welcoming voters who may agree with us on some issues (but not all)?*** What do we want progressivism to look like today, in 2018, or in 2020? To end the infighting in the Democratic party and start winning again, we need not only to start asking ourselves these questions but also to start engaging that skill which so often falls by the wayside in the age of the internet: listening to one another’s answers.

*Interestingly, Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb noted that the original form of this bill, drafted by Republicans, would have required ultrasounds for pregnant women. The final bill was the result of a compromise that Mello negotiated.

**To do this, we must set aside the fact that to be pro-choice is not only to support women’s issues but also to support economic justice and racial justice, making it morally incongruous for a person who considers themselves to hold progressive values to also be anti-choice.

***Consider, for example ,this fascinating New York Times piece on the “women who still like Trump,” some of whom also support access to birth control, examining race issues from a more nuanced perspective, and welcoming Syrian refugees. How might we get these women to vote for a progressive candidate in 2018 or in 2020?