Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Cultural Leftism and the Defeat of Sandersism

There's a very interesting polemic by Shant Mesrobian on the American Affairs website that i missed when it first came out. In "The Left's Culture War Rebranding" he argues that not only has cultural leftism been bad for the Democrats' broad electoral prospects but it has actually redefined the left away from the promise of Sanders' 2016 campaign to something quite different and less effective. Sanders' 2020 campaign was a casualty of this turn as the hegemony of professional class cultural leftism proved impossible to resist.
I don't agree with everything in this piece but Mesrobian makes a strong argument that is worth reading in its entirety.
"Technically, you could call it a victory. But what was expected to be a historic blue wave in 2020 turned out to be barely a ripple. Despite many polls predicting a blowout, Democrats only narrowly defeated a president widely believed to have mismanaged a pandemic that has killed over a quarter-million Americans and cratered the country’s economy. And Joe Biden’s underperformance in the presidential race gave way to disaster down-ballot, where Democrats failed to capture the Senate (which many analysts predicted), saw their House majority narrow significantly (instead of expand as expected), and failed miserably in their project of regaining majorities in state legislatures across the country.
If there was ever an opportune moment for left-wing activists to critique their party’s entire approach to politics, this would be it. Yet, if you listen to the group of politician-celebrities known as “the Squad”—Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, who have become the de facto spokespeople for the Democrats’ progressive, activist wing—the diagnosis is nothing short of bewildering. According to them, the lesson of 2020 is that the Democratic Party failed to address the forgotten and neglected issue of . . . racism?
In an interview published by Politico just after the election, Ocasio-Cortez declared that confronting racism was “an existential crisis for the Democratic Party” and lamented that “Democrats don’t want to talk about race.” She said in that same interview, “Anti-racism plays zero percent of a role in Democratic electoral strategy—zero, explicitly, implicitly. I’m not telling people to virtue signal, but there’s just like no plan for it.” Days earlier she had told the New York Times that the party had to “do a lot of anti-racist, deep canvassing in this country.” And in a tweet following the election, she observed that “white communities are getting more comfortable with overt racism” and that “real organizing & strategy is needed that disarms bigotry.”
The saving grace of an appraisal so far removed from reality is that it is in some ways revealing. Ocasio-Cortez’s comments are so discordant with the historical record of the Trump years, the events and tenor of the last election, and the surprising demographic inroads Trump achieved in 2020 that they suggest not merely a difference of perspective or interpretation but instead a profound structural incentive to deny reality. The Squad’s reactions to 2020 tell the story of a left-wing movement that has transformed itself from an anti-establishment, reformist effort within the Democratic Party to a performative opposition that now exists only to reinforce the party’s deepest pathologies.....
Unsurprisingly, House members from Democrats’ more conservative, business-friendly wing— who tend to be in closely divided suburban swing districts and suffered most of the party’s losses on election night—were quick to blame the Left for the Democrats’ poor performance. Many believed that controversial policies like defunding the police, which became the central demand of the summer protests and which Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad endorsed, had become an albatross around their necks.
But Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat and Squad member in good standing, knew how to fight back. In a contentious conference call among House members that was leaked to reporters, Tlaib said, “To be real, it sounds like you are saying stop pushing for what Black folks want.” In an interview with Politico several days after the call, Tlaib sounded a similar note: “We’re not going to be successful if we’re silencing districts like mine. Me not being able to speak on behalf of many of my neighbors right now, many of which are Black neighbors, means me being silenced. I can’t be silent.”
There’s just one small problem with Tlaib’s counteroffensive: black Americans overwhelmingly oppose defunding the police. According to a Gallup poll taken in July, 81 percent of black Americans oppose a reduction of police presence in their communities, with 20 percent of respondents indicating that they would actually like to see an increase. Defunding the police, it turns out, is the “Latinx” of public policies—an idea concocted and amplified by a largely white, status-signaling professional class and championed by supposed avatars of minority opinion like Tlaib, but with little actual support among the ordinary people upon whom it is foisted.....
But while it’s tempting to cast the Democrats’ centrist suburban caucus as victims of the Squad’s careless ideological extremism, it wouldn’t be quite accurate. After all, the Squad is simply the tip of the spear of a broader, party-wide turn toward a racialized, identity-obsessed culture war—one that’s been embraced by every corner of the party, nationally and locally, from leadership on down. Defunding the police was endorsed by some of the most traditional Democratic Party establishment institutions, including pro-choice groups Planned Parenthood and NARAL. No, the true casualty of the Squad’s brand of highly educated, professional-class cultural leftism is the political Left itself. While the Squad’s oppositional politics grew out of Bernie Sanders’s pathbreaking presidential run in 2016, the group’s success, and the cultural leftism it has elevated, represents not the triumph of Sanders’s broad-based populism but its ignominious defeat....
In fact, one of the most tragic victims of this evolution of the Left was Sanders’s own 2020 presidential campaign. In a sharp break from his highly successful 2016 populist campaign, the 2020 version adopted many of the intersectional Left orthodoxies that had been popularized and championed in the intervening years by his most influential surrogates, organizers, and supporters. Sanders’s laser-like focus in 2016 on wealth concentration, the threat of oligarchy, and his signature issue of Medicare for All became conspicuously diluted in 2020 by the addition of a grab bag of issues championed by the more educated, professional-class, social-justice-focused Left. Lightning-rod issues like abolishing ICE, the abstract Green New Deal, and the incessant denunciation of Trump as a “racist, sexist, and a homophobe” all became new staples of Sanders on the trail."

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