On Leftist Unity

by Jonah Goldberg

In at times needlessly smug and asinine post, Ryan Cooper makes some interesting points over at The Week. Ultimately it’s not all that persuasive where it’s responsive and not all that responsive where it’s persuasive.  Replying to this post of mine, he says:

However, Goldberg is badly mistaken about intra-left disputes. This isn’t exactly surprising, since he has a completely ridiculous view of political ideology, and probably isn’t keeping up on all the hot new radical mags out there. But I’m here to tell you that liberals fight — a lot.

From a conservative perspective, I bet these fights are easy to miss, since leftists are nearly absent from the political scene. I have often bemoaned the lack of some kind of Tea Party-like movement to engage with the political system. Occupy Wall Street, for all its many virtues, seemed to regard the electoral process with some disdain.

This is a major difference between right and left. The right wing has had amazing success in pushing the Republican Party to the right and getting dozens of true believers elected to national office. It is also riddled with nuttiness and is almost comically bad at many aspects of political tactics.

The left wing, meanwhile, is largely powerless, even though its policy prescriptions should be pretty popular given the current state of our deeply unequal economy. There hasn’t been a significant leftist presence in Congress since the 1930s at least.

Interesting stuff, but we actually agree on the relevant bits. I wrote:

We talk a lot about fusionism on the right, but the real fusion has been on the left. Barack Obama’s intellectual lineage comes directly from the 1960s left (Ayers, Wright, Allinsky, Derrick Bell, SANE Freeze etc). But he is an altogether mainstream liberal today. To the extent mainstream liberals complain about Obama it is almost entirely about tactics and competence. When was the last time you heard a really serious ideological complaint about Obama from, say, EJ Dionne or the editorial board of the New York Times? I’ll go further. When was the last time you heard liberals have a really good, public, ideological fight about anything? I’m sure there have been some interesting arguments between bloggers and the like. But I can’t think of anything – on domestic policy at least – that has spilled out onto the airwaves and op-ed pages in a sustained way. 

And Cooper’s response is to agree with me. He says, “leftists are nearly absent from the political scene.” Well, okay, depending on what he means by “leftists.” John Birchers are nearly absent from the political scene today, too. That doesn’t mean conservatives are nowhere to be found.

The trouble seems to be that he’s applying a No True Scotsman definition of leftism; If you’re part of the Democratic Party or mainstream liberalism, then you are by definition not a leftist. I think that’s absurd, but it is logically consistent. Still, I never disputed — never mind believed — that there aren’t any good fights out there. I suppose I could have been more exhaustive and inclusive when I said, “I’m sure there have been some interesting arguments between bloggers and the like.” But I didn’t think it was necessary. My point was that there are no “good, public, ideological” fights out there. Cooper agrees, he just has a different (some might say odd) explanation as to why.

 As for that explanation, Cooper seems to sincerely think that there are no leftists in Congress or in the Democratic Party. He says that the leftwing is “largely powerless.” He also seems to think that the tea party types are ideologically extreme in ways the leftwing of the Democratic Party isn’t. I find the prospect of getting into a taxonomical argument about who is extreme and who isn’t exhaustingly boring. So let’s just agree that I think he’s ridiculously wrong on these points. However, in fairness, if he’s a very, very leftwing guy (I have no idea), that perspective is entirely defensible on its own terms. A hardcore Marxist is going to think a moderate social democrat is a conservative. 

Nonetheless, nothing Cooper says actually rebuts my main points. The progressive and liberal (to use Murray’s terms) wings of the relevant left get along remarkably well. The irrelevant left may fume about it, but that’s what irrelevant factions always do on the left and the right. Just ask the Birchers.

I think Cooper is right that Occupy Wall Street was hapless when it came to electoral politics. But it’s worth recalling that the mainstream media, the leadership of the Democratic Party and nearly every liberal pundit I can think of, praised the Occupy movement as a healthy and encouraging development (conversely, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a mainstream liberal, of the sort Charles Murray praises, who condemned Occupy Wall Street or campus leftism generally). While I’m sure the Marxist purist caucus shunned such praise, that’s really not the interesting part of the story, now is it?

Now, I would argue (and Cooper might even agree), that the Democratic Party and its friends in media, labor, academia and business, are more interested in power than ideological purity. Part of this stems from the coalitional nature of the left. As a result, the bulk of the arguments on the left (hot neo-Marxist journals notwithstanding), are about how to use or attain power.

One of my favorite illustrations of this point, as I noted before, was when Peter Berkowitz commissioned two volumes of essays for the Hoover Institution, Varieties of Conservatism in America and Varieties of Progressivism in America. Each contained very thoughtful essays by leading conservatives and liberals. The conservatives defended an ideological stance – neoconservatism, traditionalism etc — the liberals offered five essays on the best way to get back into the White House.

The fact of the matter is that once you are willing to put victory first and ideology second, the Democratic Party is incredibly accommodating of leftwingers. Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, among others, could probably testify to that. So could Ralph Nader, who wasn’t willing to make that compromise. And so could Van Jones, who was. He famously admitted to accepting the liberal bargain:

Before, we would fight anybody, any time. No concession was good enough; we never said “Thank you.” Now, I put the issues and constituencies first. I’ll work with anybody, I’ll fight anybody if it will push our issues forward. . . . I’m willing to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends . . . I realized that there are a lot of people who are capitalists — shudder, shudder — who are really committed to fairly significant change in the economy, and were having bigger impacts than me and a lot of my friends with our protest signs.

When Jones was in trouble as an Obama-administration official, elite liberals in the media and elsewhere leapt to his defense. He’s now a co-host for Crossfire where he defends the Obama administration and the Democratic Party against nearly every criticism. I’m sure some Marxists would call him a sell-out but, again, that’s not the interesting part of the story.