Politics & Policy

America Needs a Sane Left

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Reuters photo: Jonathn Ernst)
Radicalism at one end of the political spectrum means radicalism at the other.

The Left is not going to learn any lessons from 2016, apparently.

Democrats in the House just crushed an upstart challenge to Nancy Pelosi’s decade-long leadership, rejecting Tim Ryan, a 43-year-old congressman who represents a swath of post-industrial Ohio from Youngstown to Akron and co-chairs the Congressional Manufacturing Caucus, for the 76-year-old San Francisco congresswoman who has presided over the largest House losses in modern memory, and who famously said that the House had to pass the Affordable Care Act “so you can find out what is in it.” As for leadership outside the halls of Congress, the favorite to head the Democratic National Committee has been Keith Ellison, a Muslim congressman from Minnesota who has extensive ties to the Nation of Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, and who has compared the September 11 attacks to the burning of the Reichstag.

Much left-wing punditry is similarly oblivious. Writing at Slate shortly after the election, Jamelle Bouie declared that “there is no such thing as a good Trump voter,” dismissing the notion that a “good person” could have cast a vote for Donald Trump. In the New York Times, Columbia humanities professor Mark Lilla wrote a searching piece, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” suggesting that “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” His Columbia colleague, Katherine Franke, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, declared Lilla a fellow traveler of David Duke, and that his essay aimed to “make white supremacy respectable.”

And, of course, the “leaders of tomorrow” populating the nation’s dormitories have been engaged in a public display of mass neurosis. Students at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., claimed that a “Trump/Pence” flag in a campus window constituted “harassment,” while several student groups at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., declared that employing police on campus was an “act of violence” because the Fraternal Order of Police had endorsed Donald Trump.

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Take all of that (and more) together and there is the distinct sense that the Left’s response to this election is going to be one not of introspection but of finger-pointing. The culprit for its shellacking at every level was not decades of labeling cultural conservatives “racists” and immigration restrictionists “xenophobes” and abortion opponents “misogynists”; it wasn’t the foolish decision to dismiss the white working class not as simply unwinnable but as not worth winning — moral reprobates with backward views; it wasn’t the choice to clear the way for a presidential candidate with longstanding issues of corruption and untrustworthiness; it was “white supremacy” and “sexism” and “fake news.” On Thursday, in a forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook blamed his candidate’s loss on FBI director James Comey.

Obviously, the Left’s diagnoses of the ascendancy of Donald Trump are not wholly wrong. Among a small fringe, Trump’s was an explicitly racialist appeal. Likewise, “fake news” was a real problem, from “rigged election” conspiracy theories on Infowars to the Drudge Report’s multiple stories about Bill Clinton’s “son,” Danny Williams, a story that Drudge itself debunked years ago.

The Left has been relentless in giving to every partisan dispute the moral urgency of warfare.

But 60 million people are not “white nationalists,” or dupes, or whatever else. They are, on the whole, well-intentioned Americans whose priorities simply differ from those of Slate writers. The Left has failed to understand the extent to which its intolerant, often coercive, approach to issues that permit good-willed disagreement has turned off voters who might otherwise be sympathetic to their general program — and radicalized further those who aren’t. The Democratic-party chairman of Mahoning County, Ohio, recently told the Washington Post, “People in the heartland thought the Democratic Party cared more about where someone else went to the restroom than whether they had a good-paying job” — and that’s because it did.

The Left has been relentless in giving to every partisan dispute the moral urgency of warfare. It’s the Left that turned Supreme Court nominations into nasty affairs. It’s the Left that co-opted America’s health-care industry on a party-line vote. It’s the Left that scrapped the filibuster. It’s the Left that forced nuns to purchase contraception. If the Right was willing to countenance a great deal of heterodoxy in 2016, it’s in part because they perceive a Left that has become unconscionably radical.

That is not to say the Right does not have serious problems of its own creation. Trump’s success would not have been possible without a real, and alarming, moral and intellectual vacuity. Opportunism in right-wing media trades on the emotivism of talk-radio listeners eager to have their worst fears about the country confirmed, and ideological zealotry has made the necessary task of compromise more difficult.

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But radicalism breeds radicalism, and the Left, in the aftermath of a massive defeat, should recognize that. A Left that ensconces itself in a sanctimonious refusal to consider the world from the perspectives of its detractors is a Left destined to become more politically impotent and nastier. That may work to Republicans’ short-term gain. But a nastier Left means a nastier Right.

America needs a sane Left. At its best, the Left balances right-wing excesses. Where the Right elevates the individual, the Left attends to the good of collectives. Where the Right values social solidarity, the Left values difference. The Right emphasizes the best parts of our common traditions; the Left is sensitive to how those traditions have left certain people vulnerable, marginalized, or disenfranchised.

#related#This is worthy work. But it can’t be imposed, and shouldn’t be. A Left that can temper its sense of apocalypse by recognizing the legitimate moral prerogatives of its political opponents would aim to persuade rather than coerce — but, for that reason, would be able to expand its coalition and be better able to find common ground with the Right.

A sense of common cause would be vastly preferable to our current moment of extreme polarization and defensiveness. But it requires a bit of humility. The Left, not its myriad scapegoats, is most responsible for its failures this year. A Left that can acknowledge that, and respond accordingly, will lead to a less radical Right, and a healthier politics overall.


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