The Case for a Progressive Electoral Litmus Test

© Josh Sager – October 2014

A litmus test is a simple question that presents a binary choice in a voter’s mind—if the candidate supports something that violates the litmus test, they are disqualified in the eyes of the voter, regardless of their other positions.


For decades, the right wing in the United States has utilized litmus tests to reduce the acceptable scope of beliefs for their candidates on certain issues; conversely, the left has opted to foster a much broader scope of opinion (ex. “blue dog democrats”) thus has chosen not to implement such concrete tests. Of the right wing litmus tests, the most persistent over the past few decades have been focused on reducing abortion rights, decreasing gun controls and rejecting tax increases. The consequences of these litmus tests have been stark, and the current right wing is essentially devoid of politicians who will sign on to support either tax increases or the protection of abortion rights.


While the right wing litmus tests have been destructive—leading to the widespread attack of reproductive freedom and erosion of the tax base—that doesn’t mean that the tactic isn’t entirely valid. After all, we currently all have unconscious litmus tests that limit who we vote for (ex. most people won’t vote for an overt racist). The damage stemming from the right wing litmus tests is caused by the fact that their litmus tests are in favor of the wrong policies, not the simple fact that they are black and white judgments.

Put simply, the American political discourse has traveled into very dangerous waters, with corruption running rampant and serious problems going unaddressed. The severity of these issues has created the necessity for the left wing to band together and present a unified front against the right wing pull in these dangerous directions. Dissent on certain issues cannot be tolerated and any Democrat to cross the following lines must be immediately and harshly consequence by voters and party leadership.

Democrats shouldn’t be allowed any latitude in …

  • Reducing campaign finance regulations to make it even easier for big-money to infiltrate the American political system.
  • Supporting the fusion of religion and state so that certain religions (ex. Evangelical Christianity) would gain the ability to legislate their faith’s dogma.
  • Eliminating net neutrality by allowing service providers to censor content (except in issues of illegal activity) or create “fast” and “slow” lanes based upon how much the content producer pays.
  • Reducing voting rights in a way that is intended to produce a partisan result—this includes voter ID laws, the elimination of early voting, and the reallocation of voting machines to create long lines in certain areas.


  • Rejecting climate science in a way that precludes addressing the dangers of climate change—this includes rejection of the scientific consensus that climate change is anthropogenic.


  • Looting entitlements (Social Security and Medicare) by cutting benefits, reducing the cost of living increase rate, or voucherizing/privatizing the programs.
  • Attacking the rights of every woman to control her own body, have access to birth control/safe abortion services, and receive equal pay for equal work.

If any democrat crosses any of these lines, they must face a primary challenge at their next election and be deprived of any leadership positions while in office.

While debate and compromise are all very important to the democratic process, there are some issues where there can be no latitude—one answer is simply correct (ex. not disenfranchising voters) while the other is too damaging to our country of democracy to tolerate. In my opinion, this creates a dire need for a series of litmus tests based around these criteria.


14 thoughts on “The Case for a Progressive Electoral Litmus Test

  1. Interesting ideas. When push comes to shove my “litmus test” is a woman’s right to choose. I will not vote for any candidate that opposes it. Period. It turns women into nothing more than breeding animals.


    • I include that, but you must also acknowledge that the right to choose is largely irrelevant in a world that is uninhabitable, and entirely impossible when corruption has given the corporate right wing control over our nation through legal bribes.


  2. I think we have a litmus test for public officials: they are called elections. Your litmus test, as you explain it here, somehow falls under a guaranteed idea of facing a challenger and potentially losing. I’d really say the this entire article is based on an idea of a guarantee.


  3. My litmus test ( good analogy) used to be what the candidate said they believed in, checking their voting records or, if never before in office, their community actions, and reputations. Presently, the levels of mendacity are much too high to ever take rhetoric as meaningful criteria to inform the voter. More important now, is to determine which entities are funding the candidates, legislation that may have been offered (or co-sponsored) in the past, and if a sense can be gained as to whether the candidate has been able to achieve some bipartisanship in his/her past.
    What was considered “moderate” in Eisenhower’s time, is now considered far left. I wish I could agree with primaries as deterrents to backsliding Liberals and Democrats, however, I neither see the availability of such candidates having the wherewithal financially, nor the majority taking the risk that voting out the old, would result in anything but winding up with a weaker candidate to run in the primary.
    We see the right pulling it off though don’t we? It seems the more wilfully ignorant and blatantly wacko the right’s candidates are, the better chance they have in primarying the GOP into oblivion. I just don’t see the majority on the left becoming that kind of black and white thinking, lock-stepping sheep. For better or worse – and I agree it has been getting worse – we on the left still cling to our “big tent” ideology, allowing compromise to be viewed a victory rather than defeat.


  4. Well said, Debbie. One area in which the radical right has been very successful is in labeling anyone who believes in society and community as a “liberal”. The term “liberal” has been relegated to mean “traitor” to some imaginary American “ideals”. We need to take back the term and embrace it. Too many Democrats shy away from standing up to reactionary forces and saying: “Yes, I’m a liberal (or progressive) and here is what that means.”.


  5. I can’t disagree with any of your ‘liberal’ litmus tests. I am at the point where I believe we must begin to narrow the field for those who want to call themselves Democrats, our acceptance of the Blue Dogs is aggravating since half the time they are nothing more than Republican Light.

    It truly is time we begin to hold our own candidates to the same standard the GOP holds theirs too.


  6. Valentine, I understand your premise, BUT – the “GOP” is gone. It has been banished by the motley crew calling themselves the “Tea Party Patriots”. Their responses to moderate offers of compromise, have been a rabid calls for more blood. Compromise on health care? NO! Shut the government down first – which of course is their ultimate goal. Anarchy makes the rich so much richer, and the poor work so much harder..

    Do we really want to become the negative of that design? I don’t. I want to pour money, time and talents into educating the seemingly uneducated America, that begs for honesty, compassion, and community – but turns to the brutes to get it for them. Can we show them another way without becoming like the brutes?


    • Look back at the days when progressives really stood up and built the framework of what we call America today. FDR “welcomed” the hatred of the rich corporatists and waged war with them to get the social safety net in place–he didn’t accept dissent from within his party. Similarly LBJ (the modern president who I most admire on domestic policy) would absolutely brutalize any politician who got in his way–the consequences of this were the passage of the civil rights act and the second greatest increase in social protections in the 20th century.

      When the opposition decides to support reprehensible things, you need to become an absolutist in opposing them.


      • Yes. While the right wing (including Goldwater) used this sentiment for destruction, people like MLK and Ghandi used it to fight for the right side of issues.

        If you look at all of my examples of litmus tests, you will notice that I limit them to issues where the other side risks causing structural damage to our nation (ex. promoting money in politics), real harm to minority groups (ex. Disenfranchising black voters), or irreversible harm to our environment. These are not normal issues in that there is one side that is simply correct while the wrong/immoral. This binary choice, coupled with the extreme consequences of making the wrong choice makes a litmus test permissible in my opinion.

        For example: In the days of the civil rights struggle, supporters of equal rights had to use race relations as a litmus test–even if they supported the tax policy, foreign policy or social views of a candidate, they couldn’t, in good conscience, vote for them if they didn’t support equality (notice that this situation is also one which is binary and has extreme consequences). Similar situations happened with Vietnam, slavery, and host of other issues.

        To put this even further into perspective: imagine that a presidential candidate supported every policy that you do, except that he would initiate a nuclear strike on the Middle East if he were elected. You, in good conscience would have to use his support for such a strike (a “reprehensible thing”) as a litmus test against supporting him and would have to become an “absolutist” while opposing his candidacy.


  7. I can’t imagine a candidate that would support every policy I do, yet would initiate a nuclear strike on the Middle East without reason. That candidate would be suffering from political schizophrenia. Not a realistic example.
    I agree with you that there are some areas in which we should try to never budge when it comes to candidates (a woman’s right to choose is my area). At the same time, no candidate will ever fulfill my every dream. In dealing with practical politics doesn’t it come down to which candidate is closest to our world view ?
    For example. If both candidates in the race for Congress oppose a woman’s right to choose, does that mean I should not vote for either? Or should i look at other issues and make a choice based on them? Or should I look at the personality of the individual and try to determine which one is more likely to be aggressive in their pursuit of these issues?
    Seems to me that a “litmus test” is a good idea in the primaries, as you say. But in the general election an entire new set of issues come into play. The “lesser of two evils” decision.
    So, I vote for a moderate like Obama because McCain and Romney would be so much worse. I will hold my nose and vote for Hilary because no matter who her opponent is, he will be so much worse.


    • I support voting for the lesser of two evils, but doing everything possible to limit the damage of their actions and prepare a primary for their next election. Of course, if you are presented with a bad choice, you must live within the bounds of reality.

      That said, I would also look to hobble even a candidate that I voted for if they violated one of these litmus tests. For example, if Obama decides to kill net neutrality by leaving it up to the FCC (and Wheeler, who was the top telecom lobbyist before he was the FCC director) then that power must be taken out of his, and any president’s, hands by legislating the issue using officials who actually support neutrality.


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