Of course elected officials ought to put country over party.
Of course the people ought to prefer representatives who govern for the sake of the common good.
Of course congressmen and senators ought to do their work in a manner that honors the nation’s values — even when doing so might conflict with their own, narrowly defined partisan interests.
“Country over party” as a philosophy of politics merely restates the axiom of good self-government that public trusts are to be discharged in the name of the commonwealth. No reasonable democrat or republican would disagree.
But what makes sense as a credo for someone who has already earned a seat in government doesn’t necessarily make sense as a strategy for someone trying to earn a seat in government: Governance and elections aren’t the same things, and calls on the campaign trail to put “country over party” — along with variations on that mantra by which Democrats expressly or implicitly deny their partisan identity — fail to heed this distinction.
Democrat Dan McCready announced his commitment to putting country over party when he launched his run for Congress in 2017.
His first campaign advertisement opened by reciting his military service in Iraq and noting his baptism in the Euphrates River, followed by a lament from the candidate: “Now I see politicians so concerned with partisan gains they’ve forgotten who they’re supposed to serve. I’ll put country over party to get things done.” A similar theme animated his second television ad.
Throughout McCready’s long campaign, blue-and-white “Country Over Party” signs popped up wherever he did. The slogan distilled his candidacy into three words.
But it didn’t work and McCready lost, twice — first to Republican Mark Harris in the November 2018 election, which was tainted by GOP voter fraud, and then to Republican Dan Bishop in a September 2019 special election held to remedy the previous, fraudulent contest.
When his campaign was over and McCready was at last a properly defeated candidate, he returned to the message he’d honed for years.
“Our refrain on this campaign was Country over Party,” he tweeted. “You took a conviction that we felt to change our country and you turned it into a movement to put country before party.”
McCready called on the same theme in his concession speech, and a month later he penned an op-ed for The New York Times in which he urged other Democrats to adopt as their own his “country over party” strategy.
Then came Democrat Cal Cunningham.
In his 2020 bid to unseat Republican Thom Tillis in the United States Senate, Cunningham employed a variation of the “country over party” theme.
On his campaign website, he attacked Washington, that vague, all-purpose bogeyman of would-be officeholders. (The campaign’s website, calfornc.com, now redirects to the site for Cunningham’s law firm. To access the contents of the campaign website, use the Wayback Machine.)
“When Cal joined the Army Reserve, he took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Back then, he never imagined that one of the greatest threats to our country’s future would be Washington itself,” the website said.
“Cal is running for U.S. Senate in North Carolina to fulfill that oath — by taking on the corruption in Washington that is standing in the way of progress on the most important issues of our time.”
He repeated the theme in his campaign’s first television ad.
Cunningham also said much the same thing in his speech declaring victory in the Democratic primary.
He hadn’t expected that “the greatest challenge to the future [of this country] would be in Washington, D.C. itself,” where “corruption … is standing in the way of progress on the biggest issues of our time.” (Cunningham also invoked the “biblical admonition to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.” We would later learn that when the married Cunningham cited the Good Book, he had already violated a different biblical admonition by taking out his phone, taking off his pants, and sexting a woman who wasn’t his wife. The two also fooled around in person at least once.)
While Cunningham’s campaign emphasized the bread-and-butter issues Democrats ought to prioritize — healthcare, the economy, and education — he did so in a way that suggested both Democrats and Republicans — that is, Washington — were equally to blame for tough times.
“This November,” Cunningham’s campaign said after his debates with Tillis, “the choice couldn’t be clearer: Cal Cunningham will take on the corruption in Washington and put North Carolina first.” Country — and state — over party.
Like McCready, Cunningham lost.
And now we’ve got Democrat Cheri Beasley, who’s reprising the “country over party” strategy in her own way as she attempts to win an open seat in United States Senate.
On her campaign website, Beasley disavows the party to which she has belonged for decades: “I’m running for Senate to be an independent voice who stands up for North Carolina and what’s right for our state — regardless of the politics.” (Of course, apolitical politics don’t exist, and saying something like this doesn’t conjure them into being. Only political duplicity or debility — the natural consequences of a “country over party” campaign strategy, as we shall see — can explain such an utterance.)
The website continues, “As a judge, she’s seen how Washington has failed people here in North Carolina — and that both parties have lost touch with the people they’re sworn to serve.”
Beasley’s television advertisements have echoed the same theme.
“We all know Washington doesn’t make a lot of sense,” she said in one of her first campaign ads. Beasley told viewers that when she was a judge, she held criminals accountable, and “in the Senate, I’ll hold Washington” — great, meaningless bogeyman! — “accountable, too, because the special interests have too much power and neither political party is getting it right.” In a different ad she mourned, “Washington isn’t listening.”
Beasley continues to espouse this message. After last weekend’s debate with her Republican opponent, Ted Budd, Beasley’s campaign touted her as “the only candidate capable of standing up to both parties and special interests to fight for North Carolina.”
The suggestion that Democrats and Republicans both stand in the way of fair, effective government and that both therefore deserve confrontation — a view understandably endorsed by third-party candidates, but a curious one to be held by a nominee of one of the two major parties — animated Beasley’s victory speech after she won the Democratic Party’s nomination earlier this year.
Beasley highlighted those things we’d expect her to emphasize — she wants to expand access to healthcare, build a fairer economy, and increase funding for education — but she spoke as though we live in a political world in which both major parties are somehow equally responsible for blocking her preferred initiatives, and she endorsed Cunningham’s erection of the nation’s capital as the real source of political frustration for ordinary people.
“Folks deserve more, who need more than what we’ve seen from Washington,” Beasley said.
“While Washington focuses on special interests and corporate cronies, the people of North Carolina are focusing on working for our families and strengthening our communities. While Washington is focusing on pointing fingers and passing blame, the people of North Carolina focus on working hard and getting things done.” (Beasley also said that “while Washington is divided, people here are not” — an aspirational statement, but certainly not an accurate one. Our divisions run deep. Why deny what we all see with our own eyes? Why indulge an obvious fiction? Maybe because, as we shall see, the logic of a “country over party” campaign habituates reliance upon fictions.)
Beasley then hit her “country over party” stride and sought to deny that any consequences arise from preferring one major political party over the other — thereby abandoning the idea that there exists in our politics a meaningful choice between two major parties that articulate two profoundly different visions for our nation.
Said Beasley, “If you don’t have a good job that pays the rent, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. If you don’t have affordable healthcare, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. If you don’t have schools that will educate your children and have the resources necessary to do so, or have access to the ballot box, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”
These remarks, if taken seriously, would relegate the work of politics and politicians to irrelevancy.
The premise of politics is that the conditions of people’s lives are connected to, and influenced by, government policies. Why can’t you pay the rent? Why don’t you have access to affordable healthcare? Why are your kids’ schools unable to fulfill their mission? Why is your access to the ballot box blocked? The answer to all of these questions: politics. And despite Beasley’s suggestion to the contrary, government policies — and the politics from which those policies emerge — are inextricably and obviously bound up with questions of party. Yet Beasley, in her pursuit of a chimerical apolitical politics, denies this.
As a result, she felt no need to make honest political arguments in her victory speech. She didn’t vigorously argue that the Democratic Party — her party! — is committed to tackling economic inequality, expanding access to healthcare, increasing funding for public schools, and eliminating needless, racist restrictions on the right to vote. She didn’t vigorously argue that her party — the Democratic Party! — is dedicated to righting the wrongs wrought by her opponent’s party and its decades-long commitments to a failed economic theory and a reactionary culture war.
The political calculus seems straightforward enough.
Nearly 2.5 million North Carolinians are registered Democrats, and more than 2.2 million are registered Republicans. Beasley can safely assume she’ll get virtually all of the Democratic ballots cast in next month’s election and virtually none of the Republican ballots.
The largest segment of registered voters — about 2.6 million — are those not affiliated with any political party. This swath of the electorate, accounting for more than one-third of the state’s voters, is the prize Beasley seeks.
The electoral problem may be fairly stated: How best to attract them?
There exist two options. Beasley could, like these voters, eschew the significance of party affiliation and hope to cast herself as one of them and, therefore, worthy of their support. Or she could make the honest case for why she’s a Democrat and why currently unaffiliated voters should support a Democratic candidate and the Democratic Party.
Adopting a message of “country over party” counts as a choice for the first option, and in some ways it makes sense: There exists a large bloc of voters who look to the party duopoly and see no place for themselves. The temptation is great to say to them, “I get it. Parties don’t matter to you because you think they don’t work. I feel the same way, too.” As a matter of political demography, there’s undeniable appeal to this approach.
But it’s a strategy that cuts deep as a matter of political psychology.
We must first accept the reality that we operate in a political system dominated by political parties — and by two parties in particular, the Democrats and the Republicans. These political parties decide which candidates appear on our ballots; they decide who controls the legislative agendas in Raleigh and Washington, D.C.; and, for members and non-members alike, they function as our political system’s most effective, accurate short-hand for summarizing a candidate’s political values and policy priorities. In short, political parties matter.
Beasley knows this. She’s running as a Democrat, and she’s been a Democrat for decades. If she thought parties didn’t matter, she wouldn’t have sought the Democratic Party’s nomination and she wouldn’t carry a party membership card in her wallet. Her long-standing identity as a Democrat, better than anything else she may say or do, tells us who Beasley is politically. And, most important for our purposes, both she and we know this to be true.
Enter the “country over party” strategy. We hear what Beasley’s saying on the campaign trail — and we heard what McCready and Cunningham said — and it just doesn’t jibe with what we all know to be true about our political system and the role parties play in it.
If voters send Beasley to the Senate, she’ll work to further the Democratic Party’s agenda and faithfully cast votes supportive of her party’s leader, President Joe Biden. Notwithstanding Beasley’s campaign assertions to the contrary, only a fool would expect her to do otherwise.
And so we confront a fabricated political dissonance, which is to say we face a political lie: Beasley is saying one thing, and we all know that, if elected to office, she’ll do another. (To be clear, the dishonesty of her campaign is no different than the dishonesty of Budd’s campaign as he tries in some ways to distance himself from Donald Trump. We all know that if Budd wins, he’ll gladly and eagerly count himself a member of the seditionist caucus of the GOP — no matter what he says on the campaign trail.)
So one vice of the “country over party” strategy is its fundamental dishonesty, which is aggravated by the condescension that paid political consultants display toward the people of North Carolina: Do the strategists running Democrats’ campaigns really think we don’t understand that if elected to office, Democrats will act and organize and vote like Democrats? Do the party’s governing class and hired guns really take such a dim, insulting view of us?
But “country over party” isn’t just dishonest, and dishonesty isn’t the strategy’s gravest political sin, which is that it reeks of weakness.
A proud Democrat, a brave Democrat, an unapologetic Democrat would come out fighting. She’d drop the partisan meekness, throw a few elbows, and loudly proclaim, “That’s right: I’m a Democrat, I support the Democratic Party, and here’s why you should, too!” She’d honestly and without qualification make an argument on behalf of her party, tell us what it stands for and what it wants to do — and, importantly, how and why it’s better for us than the other guy’s party.
She would explain to voters in plain, forceful language that the Republican Party has spent decades gutting the middle class, rigging the economy, denying people access to healthcare, refusing to properly fund public education, and interfering with voters’ rights at the ballot box. And then she would just as forcefully argue that the Democratic Party promises to reverse these policies.
She would explain that, contrary to what she said when she clinched her party’s nomination, it does matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican — or, if unaffiliated, whether you support Democrats or Republicans — because the Democratic Party is committed to governing in a way that helps the people of this country, while the Republican Party clings to white nationalism and trickle-down economics, the former to divide poor people, workers, and the middle class and the latter to fuck them once the division is complete.
Instead Beasley dissembles and goes on the defensive — and not just her, but all weak-kneed, faint-hearted Democrats who flee from their party in the name of political calculation, and who in so doing mistake cravenness for savviness. Running a campaign as an extended apology is weak, and everybody knows it.
In the face of such campaigns, unaffiliated voters ask Democrats: If you can’t back your party, why should we? Why should we vote for a party that the party’s nominee can’t bring herself to wholeheartedly support? Why are you unwilling to make your party’s case? What’s wrong with your party that prevents you from doing so? If you’re hedging, why should we commit? There are no good answers to these questions, which unavoidably arise from a “country over party” campaign strategy.
It needn’t be this way. For the sake of the Democratic Party, it shouldn’t be this way. For the sake of the nation, which is beset by a Republican Party committed to sedition and neo-authoritarianism, it mustn’t be this way. Strength and boldness — not to be confused with bluster and bravado — should be the party’s strategy; a contrary plan of apologetic weakness and partisan contrition is likely to bring only disappointment.
Even if this year’s variation of “country over party” somehow works in the upcoming senatorial election — I doubt it will, though I’d love to be wrong — any immediate gain for the Democratic Party will be offset by long-lasting damage caused by a strategy predicated on the party’s essential deficiency and defectiveness. Any political institution that argues against itself can hope to win only the very occasional victory amidst frequent defeats fueled by the scorn and skepticism of voters — who are but taking the party at its word when its leaders say there is something wrong with it.