Why Not the Left?
The case against letting socialists take the lead in the battle against right-wing populism
I’ve been haunted by a counterfactual since Donald Trump’s shocking victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Would Bernie Sanders have won?
This isn’t just a question about the specifics of Sanders’ surprisingly potent clash with the Clinton campaign throughout the Democratic primaries that year. At a deeper level, it’s a question about a slew of assumptions I make about politics.
I’m a defender of the embattled liberal center. But the smartest people I read and listen to on the democratic-socialist left (including Corey Robin, Sam Moyn, John Ganz, Matthew Sitman, and Sam Adler-Bell) have been making the case for the past several years that the liberal center is too implicated in the rise of right-wing populism to offer a compelling alternative to it.
To summarize their claim in admittedly crude terms: Beginning in the early 1990s, the mainstream of the Democratic Party embraced neoliberalism, including its fetishization of markets and skepticism toward tax increases, unionization, regulation, a robust social safety net, and the public sector more generally. All of that contributed to socioeconomic trends that acted as rocket fuel for Trump’s reactive and grievance-based politics, which has now transformed the GOP in its image.
What we need is therefore a genuine alternative to the right, not just a form of austerity-lite. This would be a response rooted in class-based solidarity, a commitment to combatting rising inequality, and a vow to improve the lives of the poor and working class by expanding existing government programs and promising bold new ones.
So is this the best way forward? Should we seek to defeat the forces of reaction by rallying around a charismatic and unapologetic socialist like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
The answer, I’m as convinced as ever, is No. But it’s worth stating clearly why I continue to hold this line, despite the persistence in my mind of that nagging counterfactual.
The Not-So-Popular Left
But before getting there, I want to pause momentarily to clarify that the argument to follow isn’t just a cover to provide justification for the milquetoast-moderate policies I’ve preferred all along. Although most of my political instincts are middle-of-the-road, I’m also pretty pragmatic. I’ve traveled widely in Europe and lived in Germany. I know it’s possible for a country as wealthy as ours to have much more generous and efficient government benefits, as well as tax policy that prevents the stratification of income and wealth that’s endemic in the United States today. I’d love to see changes that would bring us more in line with European standards and expectations. I just suspect insufficient numbers of Americans share this aspiration.
And that brings me to my first point against the left: It doesn’t enjoy enough broad-based popular support to win the power required to enact sweeping democratic-socialist change. Pointing to the Democrats winning the popular vote in all but one presidential election since 1988 doesn’t refute this supposition because the party contains moderates as well as militants. Both of those ideological factions are needed to win.
When pollsters attempt to measure ideology in the electorate as a whole, they find that the most leftward option (“liberal”) is affirmed by just 25 percent. That’s in comparison to 37 percent describing themselves as moderate and 36 percent as conservative, so the 25 percent isn’t a function of left-leaning respondents preferring another (more accurate) label, like “progressive” or “social democratic,” for their views. It’s certainly true that the left-wing faction in the country is gaining ground within the Democratic Party, now making up about half of it, which is up from 25 percent of the party in 1994. But in the electorate as a whole, things look very different.
This is a big problem for the left in this country. It’s not that the 73 percent of Americans who describe themselves as moderate or conservative necessarily embrace the economically libertarian ideology of the Republican Party, in either its pre- or post-Trump configuration. But they do incline toward suspicion of dramatic change and skepticism about big government.
Just look at how little confidence people have in American institutions. That’s not the portrait of an electorate ready and eager to empower the government to take on added responsibilities. It’s the portrait of an electorate inclined to be receptive to those who want to cut government programs. That means Republicans will often have the wind at their backs—as they have ever since the late 1970s, when overall confidence in American institutions was beginning its downward trajectory but still roughly 20 points higher than it is today.
If you look at such polls and blame Republicans for “starving the beast”—which deprives social programs and other government services of revenue, leading to a decline in quality, which then reinforces the message that the private sector would do a better job than the government of allocating social goods—I’m happy to concede the point. But what’s the left’s strategy to combat this? To spend more money to improve the quality of government programs in order to justify … spending more money on government programs in the first place?
Two Lines of Defense
In response to those who say this gets the order of political operations backwards, the left typically replies with two lines of argument. The first points to issue polling that shows strong support for specific policies favored by progressives. There certainly are such polls. The question is whether passing the handful of policies that poll strongest would satisfy the left, or if a narrow effort to, say, cap prescription drug prices or lower credit-card interest rates would invariably end up tied together with other policy initiatives that poll less favorably.
Then there’s the added uncertainty about whether support for the most popular policies would remain high in the face of scorched-earth attacks from the right. It’s one thing for someone to respond favorably to a question posed by a pollster in isolation; it’s quite another for that voter to remain committed to the policy once the political opposition mobilizes against it.
The left’s second response to skeptics suggests that there is more potential support for a strongly progressive program than standard polling reveals. That’s because there are supposedly “hidden” leftist voters out there who disengage from the political process because they don’t hear office-seekers championing their preferences. Promise to build it and they will come should therefore be the left’s mantra.
But I’m not so sure. While it’s certainly possible that the roughly 100 million eligible voters who sit out presidential elections (when turnout is highest) include throngs of leftists waiting to be mobilized, there’s no evidence I know of to support this hypothesis. On the contrary, those who have studied the question have found that nonvoters roughly mirror the ideological and partisan makeup of those who do vote, implying that an imaginary election in which every eligible voter participated would produce very similar results.
The Perils of Political Idealism
This points toward a second broad reason why I can’t get myself to believe the left is the answer to the rise of the culturally populist right: The left is too idealistic—so devoted to a dream of willing a better world into existence that it blinds itself to the world as it is.
I’ll admit that there’s more than a kernel of truth in the left’s idealism. Politics is always, in part, an imaginative exercise. We begin from where we are but dream of alternatives, trying to muster popular support for piecemeal reforms and even more radical changes. The right, which has moved public opinion in its direction on numerous issues down through the years, certainly grasps this truth. The left has enjoyed considerable success with it as well, as we can see from the history of the original Progressive movement and the New Deal on down to the achievements in recent decades of the civil rights movement and parallel movements for women’s rights and same-sex marriage.
But this doesn’t mean the left has the capacity to conjure into existence any alternative reality it wishes. Some visions of a brighter future gain popular traction; others don’t. The latter calls for lowered expectations. Instead, when it crashes into a brick wall of public opinion, the left tends either to begin yelling louder or to withdraw into a kind of reverie that is less about political engagement than it is about husbanding the movement’s moral purity.
The late, great Irving Howe, accomplished literary critic and co-founder of Dissent magazine, expressed the second sentiment in his oft-quoted line about how socialism is “the name of our desire.” As long as that vision of socialism serves as a motivating ideal and doesn’t preclude getting one’s hands dirty with the imperfections of political reality, it’s unobjectionable. But unfortunately, the left’s appeal to ideals often moves in a more defeatist direction.
Dream Politics v. the Real Thing
It pains me to point out that Sam Adler-Bell, one of my very favorite lefty writers, succumbed to this tendency in a recent essay for New York magazine. As always with Adler-Bell’s work, the piece is beautifully written and full of important observations and insights, in this case about the January 6 Committee hearings.
Yet the essay’s main point is to excuse the author’s lack of enthusiasm about and engagement with those hearings. Far from living up to their billing as a crucial defense of democracy against the forces of authoritarianism, the hearings merely bring home to Adler-Bell that democracy isn’t “going to be saved by the discovery of new facts” because the hearings are being led by “the very elites whose dereliction and cowardice and general uselessness have contributed to our crisis of legitimacy.”
Adler-Bell’s answer to the question posed in its title—“Is the January 6 Committee Really Saving Democracy?”—is therefore no, because, as he puts it in his closing line, democracy “is something that has never existed” in the United States.
Now, for an American pundit, I’m pretty prone to pessimism, so I certainly grasp where Adler-Bell is coming from. Yet I also think this is a foolishly downcast way to engage in politics, especially for someone committed to working for left-wing ends.
It’s true that the socialist ideal of democracy has never existed in this country, but free and fair elections (an absolutely necessary condition of democracy in any form) certainly have. The January 6 Committee exists to investigate a concerted effort by the former president and his ideological allies to overturn the outcome of one of those elections. The investigation is led by people from both parties who are committed to the proposition that this effort was very, very bad. Why is that not enough to inspire conviction? Because when elections are held, they only rarely deliver outcomes the left can unambivalently cheer?
I’m sorry, but this is childish. When one of the country’s two major parties expresses only conditional support for elections, rejecting them when the outcome doesn’t go its way, that is a civic emergency that calls for putting aside dream-politics in favor of the real thing. The democracy living in the heads of the left isn’t the only one worth fighting for. The deeply flawed one that coughs and sputters along in the real world needs to be defended, too—because it is, once again, the necessary condition for working toward any form of a better future.
Until the left can recognize and accept this reality, it will fall short of earning a leadership role in the fight against the populist right.
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