Is the (American) left capable of political success right now?
What follows is a roundup of critiques offered in the spirit of “I want a country where the best versions of left and right are vying against one another.” It is neither exhaustive nor definitive. But I hope that it can serve a starting point for an informative conversation.
1 – The Limits of Opprobrium and Stigma
When Abraham Lincoln was 33 years old, he gave a speech inside a Presbyterian church to a temperance society. His message: The assembled ought to be nicer to drinkers and sellers of alcohol, rather than shunning them, or denouncing them as moral pestilences. Indeed, they ought to use “kindly persuasion,” even if a man’s drunkenness had caused misery to his wife, or left his children hungry and naked with want.
For people are never less likely to change, to convert to new ways of thinking or acting, than when it means joining the ranks of their denouncers.
It was and remains extremely counterproductive for the left to treat Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” As Andrew Sullivan said, “you will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.”
2 – Forget What Is “Normal”
A typical objection to calls to contest reactionary premises on the merits, and to persuade adherents of reaction, is that doing so somehow validates their ideas. “Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being ‘normalized’ ”, again Sullivan wrote, anticipating the objection. “But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Our job in these circumstances is not to condescend but to engage — or forfeit the politics of the moment (and the future) to reaction.”
Noah Millman has fleshed out why the posture of preventing normalization is doomed: “Whoever says that Trump shouldn’t be ‘normalized’ is implying that somebody — the press, perhaps? — is in a position to decide what is normal, and to inform everybody else of that fact. But that’s not how norms work, and neither the press nor anybody else is in a position either to grant or withhold recognition to the new government.”
In fact, the word is a way of distracting from one of the crucial jobs at hand. Trump, for example, is on strong legal ground when he says that he is exempt from conflict of interest laws. But laws can be changed — and perhaps they should be. To achieve that requires making a case, not that what Trump is doing isn’t “normal,” but that it is a bad thing worth prohibiting by law. Saying “we mustn’t normalize this behavior” rather than “we need to stop this behavior” is really a way of saying that you don’t want to engage in politics, but would rather just signal to those who already agree with us just how appalled we are. And haven’t we learned already the dire consequences of substituting virtue signaling for politics?
3 – Stop Rejecting the Ordinary Work of Politics
Reflecting on what he called “the woke identity,” Freddie De Boer observed a tendency among some leftists to forcefully reject the work of persuasion with excuses like, “It’s not my job to educate you.” The not-yet-woke are to be chided, not engaged.
“The problem with making your political program the assembly of a moral aristocracy is that hierarchy always requires exclusivity,” DeBoer argues. “A fundamental, structural impediment to liberal political victory is that their preferred kind of moral engagement necessarily limits the number of adherents they can win. It’s just math: you can’t grow a mass party when the daily operation of your movement involves finding more and more heretics to ostracize from the community.”
He adds that “political progress is always and only about pulling the edge cases into a particular orbit and hoping that in time they will come to circle closer and closer to your goals.”
4 – Call Out Hate, Not Faux Pas
A related concern was raised by Ezra Klein and Chris Hayes in a podcast conversation where they agreed that while objecting to racism or other bigotries is important, the left must take care that it doesn’t stray into enforcing elite manners against people who mean no harm and harbor no hate when violating them. What’s more, it must be better at clarifying why some of what may strike observers as mere elite manners is, in fact, a substantive good that deserves to be emphasized:
Hayes: Issues of social justice have been understood by large parts of the populace as essentially elite manners.
Klein: Which, they sometimes have that dimension.
Hayes: Those two things are bound together. So if you watch a farce, the person at the dinner party who doesn’t know which fork to use, that’s who you root for. Michelle Goldberg makes this great point. She was like, ‘When I would go to rallies, a lot of people told me about political correctness and almost no one told me about NAFTA.’ It was the violations of the taboos that people liked, at least the hard core supporters who would go to the rallies, more than trade. Because at some level, their understanding of it, it was the person at the dinner party with their fine china and their 9 different kinds of forks just drinking the soup out of the bowl. And it was like, that’s my dude.
5 – Make Organizing About Effectiveness and Winning
DeRay Mckesson, the civil-rights activist best known for his work with Black Lives Matter, worried that “there is a noticeable absence of grace in the movement space,” that “some people are more addicted to fighting than winning,” and that the personal backgrounds of organizers are too often treated as if they are a proxy for their effectiveness. “We have started to police people’s authenticity by their proximity to trauma, not their proximity to the work,” he said. “Both my parents were drug addicts. My father raised us. My mother left. I know what it’s like to sleep on the floor when they shoot too close to the house. That doesn’t make me a better organizer. It could actually just make me more traumatized. How do we stop thinking about proximity to trauma as the thing that makes you the best organizer?”
Implicit in that formulation is the notion that the best organizing is that which achieves ends in the real world, not that which most defers to or elevates the traumatized.
Randall Kennedey argued in a sprawling Harper’s magazine essay that while “the politics of respectability has occasionally inflicted deep wounds on the black community” and is often misguided, “these misapplications of respectability politics should not obscure an essential fact: any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived.”
He proceeds to facilitate that hearing, harkening back to specific civil-rights era victories, warning against “forcing a Manichaean choice between outward-facing protest and inward-facing character building. […] The politics of black respectability has not banished antiblack racism, but it has improved the racial situation dramatically and has kept alive some black people who might otherwise be dead.”
These two voices might well disagree on the most effective tactics for the left, but both expressed frustration at the impulse to make winning subservient to other concerns.
6 – Participate in Local Politics
Fifteen years ago, undergraduates at colleges were upset about abusive policing, and calls for independent investigations and for reforms to policing in their area were the biggest activist causes. Today, students still care about abusive policing. But there is no major movement to transform the City Council or the police department. Students most recently attracted media attention for mobilizing against an individual whose politics they dislike: A speech by Heather Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute scholar who studies policing and has criticized Black Lives Matter, was shut down. But even if Mac Donald never speaks in public again, police departments will continue to use excessive force.
Such is the norm at lots of colleges: Student activists focus on campus events rather than local politics. As Robert J. Smith and Whitney Tymas explained on election night, however, the left made important gains in criminal-justice reform at the local level. And there is no reason why focused reformers cannot achieve much, much more. While significant advances in climate change and immigration reform require congressional action, criminal-justice reform is an entirely different beast. The center of gravity for many meaningful reform tends to be local.
7 – The Perils of Privilege
That’s the title of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s nuanced, book-length deconstruction of the privilege framework, especially when it operates in its accusatory form, rather than its original sense.
What if Trump’s appeal isn’t (just) that he gives the impression of caring about overlooked communities in Appalachia, but that he confers victimhood status to great swaths of the population who aren’t actually victims? Trumpism isn’t about weaving poor and working-class white men back into discussions of socioeconomic inequality. It’s about declaring whiteness and maleness forms of marginalization.
Why might that be attractive to a large group of voters? Built into the privilege framework is “the idea that the normal state of affairs is for things to be going terribly.”
Maltz Bovy writes: “It can seem as if the desired goal is for everyone to be oppressed, rather than for all to be free from oppression. Is it a problem that white killers are captured alive by the police? That white drug addicts appear in the media as real people with a medical condition? Or is the problem that black killers and drug addicts, respectively, don’t get that treatment?
It’s such an odd fit for cases where the point being made is that the world is just for some and unjust for others. Calling justice ‘privilege’ is just another way of highlighting that not all experience it. The problem is that it also implies that no one should… The privilege framing, with its focus on unearned advantage rather than unjust disadvantage, doesn’t fit with situations where even the ‘privileged’ person is still quite screwed.”
[see here for an opinion on the lack of utopia]