The Battle For The Future Of The American Left

The Democratic Party has reached an impasse.

It was a long time in the making — some on the left have become increasingly disillusioned with the Democrats’ slavish adherence to passé political norms like bipartisanship and compromise, especially considering the opposition party’s unwillingness to behave in a similar manner.

For years, the rift was evident but manageable; in election years, establishment Democrats were able to cajole leftists and socialists into voting for their candidates. They were primarily able to do this because as distasteful as it was to leftists to vote for yet another “safe” Democratic candidate instead of a transformative one, it was still preferable to the alternative.

With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the divide narrowed — not only was Obama the kind of politician for whom leftists would happily vote, but he also had the backing of the establishment wing of the party. And, to a large degree, the Obama administration was a boon for the left.

Then came the 2016 Democratic primary.

On one side, there was Senator Bernie Sanders, a populist hero. Rather than attempt to skirt the label of “socialist” that had been lobbed at President Obama over the previous eight years, Sanders embraced it. Sanders’ policy proposals were as progressive as the party had seen from a viable candidate in decades.

On the other side was, of course, Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State who eventually secured President Obama’s endorsement. Clinton was more palatable to traditionally “liberal” (which, by now, basically means “centrist”) Democrats — she had a strong track record of bipartisanship, and though her policy proposals were far less ambitious than those of Sanders, they were also considered more realistic and, therefore, more likely to succeed.

The knock on Sanders from establishment Democrats was twofold: first, though he’d built up a strong and passionate following in the primaries, there was concern that the enthusiasm he’d engendered on the left wouldn’t translate well to moderate voters in crucial swing states. By extension, there was also concern that his policy proposals were too progressive to capture the votes of the fabled “Rust Belt workers.”

Similarly, Clinton was criticized by many leftists for not being progressive enough. Her policy proposals were more likely to succeed, largely because they were unambitious. There was also a sense among leftists that liberals  were only supporting Clinton because it was “her turn.” To put it succinctly, under Obama, leftists had made progress towards the kind of government that accurately represented their interests, and they felt it was time to build on it; another Clinton in the White House was a step in the wrong direction.

On paper, Bernie’s policy proposals are much more ideologically aligned with mine, but I had real concerns about his ability to enact any of those proposals, especially given his uncompromising stance on them. Hillary was an uninspiring candidate, but I believed — erroneously, as it turns out — that her willingness to compromise would allow her to make at least incremental progress during her time in office.

Of course, we all know what happened next. Leftists dug in their heels; they were tired of being forced to swallow the bitter pill of “they’re better than the other guy,” tired of casting their votes for an uninspiring candidate out of party loyalty, especially given the party establishment’s habit of disregarding the very real concerns of leftists in favor of timid steps toward real change. And they were willing to suffer through what was likely to be a disastrous presidency under Donald Trump in order to shake things up. As a result, Hillary lost.

For a brief period after Trump’s election victory, liberals and leftists were aligned; the enemy of my enemy, and all that. But just as quickly as that harmony was achieved, it was dashed. Leftists have taken to playing the long game: GOP leadership was unwilling to compromise; therefore, what better time than now to put forth their own equally ambitious plans and let people decide which would work best?

Centrists, for the most part, have adopted a short-term view. They believe that the Trump administration is harmful enough that once voters have endured four years of it, they’ll take whatever uninspiring candidate is offered to them.

In theory, these two wings of the left could work towards their goals independently, each benefiting from the efforts of the other. In practice, however, the result has been endless in-fighting and vitriol.

Liberals deride leftists as “Bernie Bros,” selfish fools who, because their candidate didn’t get the nomination, decided to plunge the country into turmoil by not rallying behind Clinton last year. There are also a not-insignificant number of liberals who believe leftists didn’t vote for Clinton because of some implicit sexism, which is… well, let’s call it “odd.”

Leftists, meanwhile, view liberals as poseurs, people who claim to support progressive ideals and principles but are willing to abandon them at the first sign of pushback. Leftists see liberals as overly-concerned with the nebulous (and likely bygone) concept of unity between the left and the right, while displaying a lack of concern for the advancement of the values they claim to espouse.

(I know the distinction between the two groups can be a little confusing, so let me help clarify with a Twitter example. A liberal is someone who replies to every Donald Trump tweet with some unfunny joke about the covfefe thing, says “THIS IS NOT NORMAL” at every opportunity, and uses the #resist hashtag way too much. A leftist is someone with a rose emoji in their Twitter handle who argues with everyone and calls George W. Bush a war criminal.)

The thing is, neither side is wrong, per se. There are too many leftist voters to be ignored, and sooner or later, the Democratic Party will need to address their very real and legitimate concerns if it wants to survive. By the same token, however, it would behoove leftists to display at least some willingness to compromise on the issues; treating politics as a zero-sum game is not a viable long-term solution. If handled correctly, I believe this in-fighting can yield positive results, particularly if the Democratic establishment is forced to move left on social and fiscal issues and embrace some of Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals.

But if liberals refuse to move left, leftists may simply splinter off and form their own party. And while leftists and progressives number in the millions, they simply don’t have the numbers to carry their candidate to a general election victory. Similarly, the liberal voter base is shrinking, and as last November proved, the liberal vote alone isn’t enough to regain the White House. At some point, leftists and liberals will need to find some common ground; otherwise, the Trump administration is just the beginning.

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