Politics & Policy

Liberals Have Enemies to Their Left

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debate in New York, April 14, 2016. (Reuters photo: Lucas Jackson)
Democrats face an ideological schism, today as in the 1960s.

Throughout the primaries and general election, the media subjected us to endless stories about “the Republican civil war.” Yet it’s Democrats who are facing an ideological schism that is arguably far greater. It that might look familiar to students of 20th-century history.

The self-described “dirtbag Left” is a group of leftist writers and Internet personalities most famously known for their podcast Chapo Trap House. It’s entertaining, and its edginess stands out in this era of stuffy and scripted politics.

But make no mistake, the Chapo Trap House hosts and the leftist milieu in which they operate are old wine in a new, digital bottle. They preach a kind of leftism that would be more at home in Paris during the 1968 May uprisings than at the New York Times. They reject technocratic liberalism favored by “wonks” and academic economists, preferring traditional, class-based revolution that’s materialist and vaguely existential in its goals.

If you were to drop in on Chapo Trap House cohost Felix Biederman’s Twitter feed, you’d find pointed at Jonathan Chait and similar center-left writers the same kind of derision that you would listening to Rush Limbaugh. Both refer to their ideological opponents as “libs,” and both mock the elitist snobbery that so many say helped put Trump in office. Many cultural issues, including transgender rights (which they fully support), serve as a distraction from the economic malaise and stagnation plaguing the average American, according to the Chapo gang. Much of the commentary from the dirtbag Left sounds more like Peter Thiel’s speech at the Republican National Convention than something you’d hear at Occupy Wall Street.

Throughout the campaign, the Chapo gang acknowledged Hillary Clinton’s various flaws. While they’re unlikely to carp about Benghazi, they had no problem attacking her for her connections to Goldman Sachs and foreign governments. Although none of them expected a Trump win, his victory seems overdetermined to a group already disgusted by the Democrats’ decision to nominate such a “moderate” candidate. In response, Chapo personality Will Menaker said, “We must declare eternal, holy war on the Democratic party.”

In an interview with PS Magazine, Chapo cohost Matt Christman speaks about his admiration for various texts from Karl Marx, and he views them as the fundamental inspiration of his ideology. Biederman refers to “criminals” in the Democratic party who don’t do enough to end inequality or racial discrimination. In terms of the kinds of specific policies they want enacted, the concept of for-profit health care, for example, is an absurdity and fundamental error of modernity.

It’s important to know that they’re not pining for some kind of third-way politics. Yes, they disfavor the advice and policies of liberals and technocrats, but only because they view them as impediments to true social revolution — traitors to the cause. The incrementalism toward social democracy advocated by traditional Democrats is unacceptable — and arguably as bad as conservative policies.

Those breaking away from Clinton-brand Democratic politics in 2017 differ little from 1960s leftists disgusted with the “NATO intellectuals.”

The writers of Jacobin magazine travel in intellectual circles close to the dirtbag Left. A socialist quarterly with a strong social-media presence, Jacobin serves as the home for the more serious work of this new New Left. To get a flavor of where they’re coming from, read contributing editor Matt Karp, who lays it out in “Against Fortress Liberalism.”

“Incrementalism is just a code word to disguise what is effectively a right-wing retrenchment,” according to Karp. The electoral failures of the Democratic party are due not to any platform left of the American electorate but to Democrats’ having part “distanced themselves from . . . redistributive economics.”

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Compare the language of writers in Jacobin to that of the New Left in the 1960s and you find little difference, despite the fall of the Soviet Union and the millions lifted out of poverty because of capitalism, in their rhetoric.

In 1960, leftist sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote “Letter to the New Left” for the New Left Review. There he attacked “liberal rhetoric . . . used as an uncriticised weapon with which to attack Marxism.” This “New Yorker style of reportage has become politically triumphant,” and the idea that “US capitalism will continue to be workable, the welfare state will continue along the road to ever greater justice” was the primary ideological enemy of his time.

In other words, those breaking away from Clinton-brand Democratic politics in 2017 differ little from 1960s leftists disgusted with the “NATO intellectuals.” It’s not enough to enact certain social reforms and policies and tinker with them after seeing the results. Total social upheaval is the only answer. Fortunately, instead of the Weather Underground, we have (at least right now) only podcasts.

As conservatives, we find it easy to enjoy the spectacle of infighting on the left. In many ways, I even sympathize with the kind of politics put forth by the comrades at Chapo Trap House and Jacobin. Their attachment to socialist theory and historical materialism is in some respects a lot purer and more honest than a professional economist like Jonathan Gruber, who sounds more like a snake-oil salesman than a sincere reformer.

#related#Still, it’s important to remember the potency of this kind of thinking. The same intellectual forces propelling a relatively unknown socialist quarterly or the podcasts of a group of Brooklyn hipsters nearly gave Bernie Sanders the Democratic nomination. More darkly, the young people advocating a no-compromise form of politics and social revolution don’t live with the memories (or receive an education that properly warns) of the 20th-century atrocities and calamities done in the name of justice and equality.

I suspect that in the next year we’ll hear a lot from mainstream pundits saying that the ideas presented by Jacobin and leftist satirists can save the Democratic party. But let’s hope not. Their ideas are old, tried, failed — and dangerous.

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