Friday, November 05, 2021

Omari Hardy is the Future of BDS in the Democratic Party

In the sprawling field vying to replace deceased Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, there were no less than five current elected officials running in the Democratic primary that occurred this week. One of these five was State Rep. Omari Hardy.

Initially, all of these candidates avowed positions on Israel that fell roughly in the mainstream of contemporary Democratic politics. About a month before election day, however, Hardy abruptly changed his position on Israel -- announcing his support for the BDS movement (he had only several weeks earlier claimed to be opposed) as well as opposition to the U.S. funding Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. Upon announcing this change, I suddenly started seeing him a lot more on my Twitter feed, loudly proclaiming about how he wouldn't be intimidated into changing his position and basking in the adoration of a certain wing of commentators who lauded his rare courage and bold commitment to principle, and who presented him as a harbinger of change in Democratic politics. This was not something Hardy did quietly -- his switch to becoming overtly anti-Israel and pro-BDS was a critical part of his closing argument to try and win the race and become the next Democratic Representative from Florida.

On election day, in a sprawling field that contained five current elected officials, Omari Hardy ended up placing sixth. He received less than 6% of the vote -- behind all of his fellow politicos, as well as a wealthy self-funding businesswoman named Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (the ultimate winner has not yet been called; Cherfilus-McCormick and Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness are currently separated by a whopping twelve votes).

Sixth place finishing, 6% winning Omari Hardy is the future of BDS in the Democratic Party.

If that sounds a bit snarky, I don't -- well, okay, I do mean it to be a little snarky. But believe it or not, the snark is not actually my main thesis.

Omari Hardy was competing in a sprawling, wide open field for an open congressional seat. If you're going to stand out from the pack, you need to do something that clearly marks you as different from the pack. Adopting a generic pro-Israel position in the same vein as all the other candidates wouldn't give anyone a reason to vote for him. Or against him, to be sure. But in politics, the saying "second place is first loser" is especially apt. Announcing support for BDS and pivoting towards intense pronounced hostility to Israel was a calculated risk; it at least offered him a chance to win, even if the more likely result was that he'd just lose by a wider margin (before he announced his pro-BDS turn, Hardy was polling at 10%, so if anything he slipped in performance).

It is a myth that the only route to political power is to take broadly popular positions, even within your own party. That's probably necessary if you want to become the national leader -- as Bernie Sanders found out, if you want to become the Democratic nominee for President, you have to be supported by most Democrats. But becoming the leader is not what everyone wants. You can amass a great deal of power by becoming the standard-bearer for a smaller but intensely passionate faction of the party. And the nice thing about these smaller factions is that they are smaller, and so it's easier to become their "the guy" than it is to become the national "the guy". In particular, in a sprawling primary that's wide open and conducted under first past the post rules, consolidating the small but intense faction is an at least plausible path to victory. It's no accident that Sanders performed best against a divided Democratic field -- a high floor, low ceiling candidate is well-positioned in wide-open, sharply fractured races.

Omari Hardy represents the future of BDS not (just) because he shows that BDS remains whatever the opposite of a selling point is for most Democrats. That is certainly an important lesson to learn. But just as importantly, he's the future because he perceived -- and I think not incorrectly -- that endorsing BDS is a way of standing out from other Democrats and potentially consolidating the backing of a small but intense wing of the progressive movement, some of whom border on being single-issue (anti-)Israel voters (the seething hatred many on the left have for Ritchie Torres, who is on the left edge of the party on virtually every issue but Israel, is one manifestation of this. The comical attempt by some lefty activists to expel Jamaal Bowman from the Democratic Socialist of America because he didn't vote against Iron Dome is another). 

A sprawling primary where a small cadre of passionate supporters can plausibly carry a candidate to victory is a good place to try and leverage becoming the consensus choice of a small wing of Democrats who feel very intensely about one issue. An even better place to run this play may be after one has already won the primary to hold a safe seat and one can feel confident in one's ability to hold onto it indefinitely (Ilhan Omar, too, flipped on BDS only after she had secured a victory in a Democratic primary), when a politician's eye can drift away from local challengers and towards the national spotlight. To be clear, this path is not the route to become President, it's not even the route to become leader of the Democratic congressional caucus (neither one of these is in Ilhan Omar's future). But it is a route to securing a not-insubstantial amount of power. And that's going to be very tempting to a certain type of ambitious politico.

I'm not accusing Hardy of being purely opportunistic in his sudden embrace of BDS. I don't think he's lying; I believe he believes BDS is a reasonable and non-pernicious campaign. But I also don't think it's wrong to look a little archly at his rapid about-face, just a month before election day -- one that was loudly trumpeted and promoted by his campaign, one that he quickly tried to make a centerpiece of his campaign and his boundless courage -- and think that political calculations were playing a rather sizeable role here. Most likely, I suspect that Hardy didn't really care that much about BDS or Israel at the start of this race, and doesn't care too much about it now. He took the anti-BDS position at the start of the race not because he had strong feelings against it but because it was the easiest, default option and didn't seem patently offensive, and he swapped positions at the end of the race not because he developed strong feelings for it but because it was a plausible Hail Mary play that also didn't patently offend him. And if this sounds very cynical, I suspect this is how most politicians deal with most issues that are not especially central to their identity -- it's not that they don't believe what they're saying, but for the 90% of issues that are "their" issues, there's plenty of room for beliefs to accommodate a more bloodless calculation of political interest. Hardy is no different from any other politico save for the particular lane his bloodless calculation of political interest ended up placing him in.

And so, despite the fact that the result for Hardy was finishing in sixth place with less than 6% of the vote, plays like Hardy's are something I think we'll be seeing a lot more of. Most Democrats will continue to oppose BDS, and oppose extreme anti-Israel policies (while -- hopefully -- become more open to practical and sorely needed policy shifts designed to actually promote Palestinian rights, such as backing the Two State Solution Act). But more and more frequently, we'll see cases like Omari Hardy: candidates who are laboring at the back of a crowded field and are looking to stand out and get a burst of cash and volunteers, or safe seat backbenchers yearning to garner a national profile and internet likes, will view BDS as a promising avenue for rising for obscurity. It won't win them national or competitive races; it often won't even succeed in fragmented contests amongst Democrats. But if you're going to lose the race anyway, it's a cost-free gamble. And if you don't care that much about the issue to begin with, plenty of people will be happy to roll those dice.

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