Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Three Factions of the American Left

I recently encountered Ross Barkan's substack, Political Currents, which has some sharp analysis on it. In this piece, he delineates what he takes to be the three factions of the American left. I don't entirely agree with his categorization it but I think it's an interesting typology. He distinguishes between the socialist left, the liberal left and the moderate left. Here are some insightful excerpts from the essay (though the full essay is highly recommended):
"If the liberal left can be understood as more committed to amelioration than a socialistic reimagining of the economy—for many Americans, this is fine and dandy!—it can also be explained as a class cohort, a set of attitudes, and a certain commitment to identity above class. Like the socialist left, the liberal leftists tend to live in cities and congregate together. Many on the liberal left belong to what is known as the professional-managerial class (PMC). They are white collared, salaried workers with advanced degrees who regularly consume left-of-center media. They generally reproduce capitalist culture and capitalist class relations. They are regular readers of the New York Times and Washington Post, watchers of MSNBC and CNN. Members of the PMC can also belong to DSA, but they are often not formal members of any socialist organizations.
Media figures like Paul Krugman, David Remnick, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Rachel Maddow embody much of the left liberal consensus. Domestically, they favor a large, activist federal government, but put far more stock in American institutions than the socialist left, fixating, for example, on Trump’s ties to Russia and his ill manners as much as the policy changes he implemented as president. At times, the liberal left’s case against Trump could rest on aesthetics; a socialist is more likely to revile George W. Bush, who launched the Iraq War and implemented a mass surveillance state, than Trump. Bush, a friend of Michelle Obama and an amateur painter, is viewed in a much more favorable light than Trump by many in the PMC....
But let’s return to who is really winning. If the socialist left has the ground troops, the liberal left has the institutions: the media, academia, and the arts....In a perceptive piece last summer, the conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that the explosion of the anti-police brutality protests and the sudden popularity of critical race theory—Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo were runaway best-sellers—was something of a defeat for Sanders and the socialist left, who had attempted to build large, multiracial coalitions around economic concerns like income inequality, the decline of unionization, and the exploitation of labor by capital.
“The demand for police reform at the heart of the current protests doesn’t fit this caricature,” Douthat wrote, referring to a socialist critique of liberalism that is “obsessed with cultural power at the expense of economic transformation, and that it puts the language of radicalism in the service of elitism.”
“But much of the action around it, the anti-racist reckoning unfolding in colleges, media organizations, corporations and public statuary, may seem more unifying than the Sanders revolution precisely because it isn’t as threatening to power.”
Indeed, we live in an odd moment when even a Civil Rights era conception of racial justice can seem retrograde to certain segments of the liberal left, particularly those who have become religious readers of Kendi, the star academic, and DiAngelo, the millionaire consultant who coined the term “white fragility.”
For the liberal left, critical race theory has become a totem: all interactions in American society are fraught with racial animus, white supremacy is like a virus, and racial identity is the alpha and omega, often the sole way to define an individual. An intentional way to root out racism in America, critical race theory is easily appropriated by the most nefarious and powerful corporations on Earth, like Nike and Amazon, which exploit the labor of poor people of color. Far easier to offer a few anti-bias trainings, designed by DiAngelo, and utter “Black Lives Matter” in public than recognize a union. Amazon, which threw up a BLM banner on its home page over the summer, is currently trying to smash a union organizing drive in Bessemer, Alabama, a city that is 72 percent Black. In the immortal words of DiAngelo last summer: “I avoid critiquing capitalism—I don’t need to give people reasons to dismiss me.”
Part of the challenge with the liberal left approach to combating racism and sexism is that it centers almost entirely on individual action. Enough implicit bias or anti-racist workshops can “cure” wrong-thinking individuals. Self-criticism and policing of speech are regarded as sufficient; corporations are all too happy to oblige, since retraining and even scolding their workforce can effectively shield management in workplace disputes. Anti-racist or race-neutral capitalism is often the end goal, rather than far-reaching policy and changes in law that can alleviate the worst effects of racial and gender discrimination....
When mainstream media outlets write about moderates in office, they tend to focus on a particularly type: the culturally liberal, fiscally centrist politician who backs gun-control and immigration reform but balks at government-run healthcare or higher taxes. This sort of moderate is overrepresented in the media, both in who gets covered and who does the actual reporting. Both media and academia are increasingly filled with a young, urban, and very liberal precariat that has little in common with the millions of people who come to the polls.
Shor formulates a couple of arguments that make both the socialist and liberal left uneasy: two of their most cherished issues, defunding the police and weakening or entirely ending border restrictions, are deeply unpopular and should be rebranded, deemphasized, or abandoned altogether, he says. This can be debated, but what is less debatable is that the wide swath of moderate left voters—the racially diverse Democrats beyond 50, from African-Americans in South Carolina to Latinos in California to whites in Michigan and Wisconsin—do not like the idea of drastically reducing the budgets of police departments. Support for defund has cratered: a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 18 percent of voters backed the defund the police movement, while 58 percent opposed it. Just 28 percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of Democrats favored it at all.
In races across America last fall, many Republicans successfully demagogued on the issue, forcing most Democrats running for state houses and Congress to assert that they did not, in fact, want to defund the police. “But to Democrats concerned about how Republicans would distort the slogan to paint all of the party’s candidates as radical opponents of police officers as a whole ― one of the more trusted professions in the country ― the trend became a source of consternation,” reported HuffPost’s Daniel Marans. “Those concerns grew as police accountability protests gave way to riots in a number of American cities over the summer.”
“I’m not sure why, at any point, we allowed this conversation to be defunding the police and we didn’t just call it police reform,” Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist, told Marans. “I’m not even sure I’m 100 percent clear on what defunding the police means.”
This poses a particular challenge for the socialist left, since the goal of DSA is to build a mass organization that represents working class demands. There is no evidence that in poor and working class towns and cities, with shootings and murders on the rise, deeply slashing police department budgets is a popular demand. Reimagining and retraining police—and reducing racist police violence—is broadly supported, as is increasing funding for social services.
But the more radical demands, which have become de rigueur in socialist and liberal left circles, are not celebrated. Supporters of the defund movement will equate themselves to the abolitionists of the 19th century, but such a historical parallel does not quite fit here, since most Americans do not view police in the same light as those who owned and traded human bodies.
Similarly, much of the liberal left’s discourse around identity is confusing to most moderates. Kendi’s binary, that all ideas are either racist or anti-racist, or DiAngelo’s own Manichean proclamation that most human interaction boils down to whites in conflict against nonwhites would be confounding to the Tejanos of the Rio Grande Valley or the Dominican-Americans of Washington Heights or the Asian-Americans of Orange County. Much of the way the liberal and academic left discourses about race manages to elide or ignore altogether the diversity that a lot of the working class experiences daily, in which umbrella terms like BIPOC are never used. The jargon, which college-educated people in urban areas are fluid in, holds little meaning.
On immigration, alphabet left organizations are particularly divorced from how a significant number of Latino voters view the issue. In 2020, Latino voters dramatically swung toward Trump, as culturally and socially moderate voters retreated from Democratic candidates. Some of this was natural ideological polarization—conservative Latinos are not reflexively voting Democrat anymore—while a growing number seemed to resent that Democrats, and the nonprofit organizations that serve them, assume immigration is all they care about. The second Trump election clarified what certain journalists who have covered legal and undocumented immigrants have known for a long time: those who paid a lot of money and endured years of struggle to become citizens sometimes resent those who did not.
The moderate voter is not more fiscally conservative, in a classic sense, than even the socialist voter, but the moderate retreats from certain left signifiers. Unlike the socialist, the moderate is proudly pro-capitalist. Unlike the liberal, the moderate does not treat patriotism or religion as an embarrassing or ironic vestige of a lost world. Many moderates earnestly embrace nationalism and American iconography. They go to church on Sundays and, if they live in small towns, might organize their lives around religious institutions. Secularism is the default in both the socialist and liberal left; moderates are far more likely to turn to religion to give meaning to their lives.
There is good news for those who want Americans to embrace incredibly progressive or even socialistic economic policy: moderates are in full support, as long as it’s packaged appropriately. Democrats in Congress, with Biden’s approval, may be on the verge of creating a universal basic income for poor and middle class families with children. This idea is so popular Republicans don’t even know how to oppose it. Even Sanders, as chairman of the Senate’s Budget Committee, didn’t bother to call it socialism.
And the idea of the federal government spending trillions to prop up the economy, save public schools and municipal services, and send $1,400 checks to tens of millions of people is incredibly popular. Unlike 20 or 30 years ago, there is no moderate faction of the Democratic Party complaining about deficit spending or the growth of welfare. RIP the Atari Democrat. RIP neoliberalism."

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