Brittany Huckabee’s masterful documentary How to Fix a Primary is a deep dive behind-the-scenes look at Democratic Party politics in the 2018 Michigan gubernatorial primary. The film follows the three front-runners in that race: Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, Progressive Abdul El-Sayed, and Shri Thanedar, a ridiculous self-funded vanity candidate who spent millions of dollars in advertising to create a public political presence.
Huckabee follows El-Sayed’s tireless campaigning as he navigates through its unique challenges. Dr. El-Sayed is sharp and driven, and probably well suited to be governor. Born and raised in Detroit, he was a Rhodes scholar and taught at an Ivy League school, then served as Detroit’s health director. He has a passion for public health. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed him. Campaigning on a promise to refuse PAC money, he mapped out a framework for “Medicare for All” in the statewide health-care system. He is also a Muslim-American, which set additional challenges for his campaign. With 9/11 and the advent of ISIS, Islam is still regarded with deep suspicion and hatred among segments of the U.S. population.
“…follows El-Sayed’s tireless campaigning as he navigates through its unique challenges.”
How to Fix a Primary paints the race as being corrupt and party politics as unfair. The argument of the outsider Progressive movement here is that their candidates are unfairly disadvantaged because of their unwillingness to accept corporate or PAC dollars. The assumption is that those contributions and the influence of “dark money” set up a quid pro quo that leads to corruption, but that’s jumping to conclusions. While it’s clear that dark money is prevalent in elections, whether the recipient of the funds chooses to be corrupted is down to the winning candidate’s ethics. It’s a tightrope that can be walked.
The left-of-center Progressive movement has had lofty aspirations since the Presidential primaries in 2016 when Bernie Sanders decided to run as a Democrat instead of an Independent (which he had been for his entire career up to that point). The reason for his change was clear, and it’s what Huckabee’s doc is really about: campaign financing. If Sanders had won the primary, he’d have had the Democratic Party war chest at his disposal, but he isn’t a Democrat. The DNC has taken a lot of flack for having “favored” candidates. But there’s nothing unfair about a candidate doing better with a party when their policies align with it.
In Michigan, El-Sayed had good ideas but aligned with the Progressive movement, not the Democrats. The Progressive movement needs to build a party from the ground up, winning local seats and expanding from there. If there’s as much support for their ideas as this documentary suggests, then they’ll grow into an effective third party that can challenge the two-party establishment. This would be more honest than trying to insinuate themselves into the Democratic party and overthrow it from the inside. Also, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and accept campaign funds from PACs and corporations, at least under the current laws. At some point, campaigns must be financed to be viable.
"…the essence of politics is compromise."