Magazine May 4, 2020, Issue

Progressive Populism’s Dashed Hopes

Bernie Sanders campaigns in Ann Arbor, Mich., March 8, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
The Populist’s Guide to 2020: A New Right and New Left Are Rising, by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti (Strong Arm Press, 244 pp., $19.99)

Timing is everything for election-cycle treatises, which tend to have a shorter shelf life than do other political books. Praise a candidate’s legacy too late or envisage a political party’s emerging strength too early and you submit your thesis to the unpredictability of the voters. Such is the case with Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti’s manifesto, The Populist’s Guide to 2020: A New Right and New Left Are Rising, which was released in February. The nascent revolution at its heart — the supposed left–right populist “realignment” that animates the duo’s project — risks being crushed in the crib.

Ball, a former MSNBC host, and Enjeti, a former Daily Caller correspondent, have attracted praise from a heterodox crowd that ranges from Glenn Greenwald to Steve Bannon. The two are cohosts of Rising, a fire-breathing display of populist punditry, from both the left (Ball) and the right (Enjeti), that is produced by The Hill and streams daily on YouTube. While the show borrows the aesthetic of the mainstream media, it is self-consciously iconoclastic. In an era of insurgent politics and rampant skepticism of media, it’s the Bernie–Trump show that owns the elites. Despite starting less than a year ago, Rising’s audience has ballooned to 400,000 subscribers on YouTube, with over 3.4 million hours watched in the last month — enough fans to allow The Populist’s Guide to debut on Amazon’s best-seller list.

The book is composed largely of the pair’s on-air monologues, offering the screen-averse reader a sample of Rising’s “greatest hits” with some original commentary mixed in. The authors’ goal is “to challenge conventional wisdom and shift both parties to work in the interest of the working class instead of their current financial masters.” But ultimately this ambition undoes their analysis — as the 2020 race proves, their vision clouds their judgment.

The progressive Ball and the conservative Enjeti differ in their beliefs and their preferred policies, but they are united by an economic framework and by a conviction that America is beset by working-class anxiety. As they put it, they share a “central diagnosis of the rot in this country, of how we got to this place, and a deep skepticism of power.” Exhortations against the establishment are a staple: “Speak up. Make people uncomfortable. Don’t let the ‘experts’ convince you that better isn’t possible.” As good populists do, Ball and Enjeti focus on exposing problems. In the book’s first three sections — titled “Core Rot,” “Media,” and “Identity” — they go after “neoliberalism,” media bias, and identity politics.

While Ball shares with other Democrats a visceral dislike of President Trump, she trains her fire on members of her own party’s establishment. “Just imagine if a fraction of the time devoted to Russiagate and Ukrainegate had instead been spent on increasing Social Security, or a $15 minimum wage, or Medicare-for-All,” she writes in a chapter criticizing the failed impeachment. She also hammers the pundit world of her past life, documenting how the mainstream media bared their “ideological and biased” preferences in coverage of the 2020 field. An entire chapter is dedicated to her former employer MSNBC, which — for various reasons — she says is “no friend of the left.”

Enjeti offers criticisms of the Right, echoing the 2016 Trump campaign’s rejection of the Republican Party’s past affinity for liberal immigration and free trade. “Republicans should become more comfortable with using the power of the government to help direct market forces toward the goal of conserving our American way of life, American workers, and American families,” he writes.

At the core of The Populist’s Guide to 2020 are critiques of most of the Democratic field. High on the naughty list are the failed centrists. Ball dismisses Pete Buttigieg as “the Boomer candidate” for “the college-educated MSNBC watching type.” And Enjeti blasts Kamala Harris: “Her entire political ethos was founded on being a woman of color who touted neoliberal economics.” Fundamentally for their case, the authors then deliver a broadside against Joe Biden, in behalf of Bernie Sanders.

Ball and Enjeti declare Biden to be a “representative of the centrist establishment,” a figure upholding a “bipartisan commitment to wars, soft corruption, and steady grinding of the working class in the name of efficiency.” Enjeti rips Biden’s “neoliberal” record in an essay on the former vice president’s legacy in the Obama administration, pointing to his promotion of the North American Free Trade Agreement and his weak record on China as the proof in the pudding. Ball calls the former vice president “inarticulate” and “unimpressive” and blames him for creating “the very rot which led to Trump in the United States and other right-wing populist movements around the world.”

Throughout the book, Ball makes the case for Sanders — not only as her preferred candidate but as the candidate best positioned for electoral success: “Bernie is the representative of a left-wing class-based movement that could answer Trump’s right-wing populism with something new, a Democratic Party that actually delivers for the entire multi-racial working class.” This characterization is jarring when set against the Vermont progressive’s collapse, for the second straight Democratic primary, against an allegedly weak, establishment front-runner. Before he dropped out of the race, Sanders’s support among black voters was down significantly, and he had hemorrhaged votes from non-college whites, suggesting his working-class base had shrunk since 2016. And his hoped-for record youth turnout didn’t materialize. The failures raise serious questions about the prospects for progressive populism, among them: What animates the Left? A revolution of class consciousness, or a collection of socially liberal cultural crusades?

As Samuel Huntington famously wrote, “the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” For all the book’s warnings about the dangers of identity politics, perhaps the most telling passage of The Populist’s Guide to 2020 is Enjeti’s damning description of the dynamic that will bring about “the eventual downfall of the American Left”: “No matter how much you want to tout progressive economics, the intersectionally woke members of your coalition will always impose their PC litmus tests upon you,” he warns the economically minded members of the Left. “They will not allow a single concession . . . to the cultural right and will demand representation in any future administration they are likely to hold.”

Sanders’s political demise illuminates this conflict. While Ball tries to paint the movement of the Vermont independent as a genuine revolution, distilling a fusion of democratic socialism and intersectionality into slogans fit for TV, Sanders’s failures illustrate the error of touting the “consistency” of his vision and message in the war to end all class wars. In reality, the campaign’s 2020 pitch to young voters amounted to adopting some new woke and hip markers. He went from being a hardliner on illegal immigration in 2015 — a working-class position Trump espoused to great effect — to calling the president’s position “dehumanizing.” He touted endorsements this election cycle from uber-wealthy models and pop stars while railing against wealth inequality. His rock-concert-like rallies gave off more of a college-kid-who-read-Marx-once vibe than one of New Deal–era organizing. And as he spoke of waging a people’s revolution against the status quo, Sanders personally apologized to Biden after a surrogate wrote an op-ed about Biden’s “corruption problem.” For all his posturing, Sanders has been more of a hippie godfather than a protagonist in the great progressive struggle.

His fall demonstrates how the institutional strength of the Democratic Party, built on Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s mainstream popularity, has been able to mollify the angry winds of progressive populism with incremental cultural shifts of the Overton window. As Matt Stoller recently quipped, “the ‘progressive movement’ is basically just an aesthetic critique.”

While The Populist’s Guide to 2020 offers a populist paradigm for the future of American politics — potentially moldable in a post-coronavirus world — its fatal conceit is the assumption that both Left and Right must answer the putative rise in working-class political energy. A different sort of shift seems more likely. Michael Lind argued in an April 2016 New York Times op-ed that “in one form or another, Trumpism and Clintonism will define conservatism and progressivism in America.” As Republicans continue to align with working-class voters by “moving somewhat to the left on middle-class entitlements and somewhat to the right on immigration and trade,” Lind predicted that Democrats would react to balance the bipartisan system by moving toward “finance-friendly economics with social and racial liberalism” to represent more upper-class constituents. Indeed, on his podcast for the Hudson Institute, The Realignment, Enjeti offers a frequently perceptive exploration of these issues.

If the Tea Party’s 2010 surge of populist anger within the GOP was a portent of Trump’s shock victory in 2016, the resurgence of moderate Democrats and the party’s blue suburban wave in the 2018 midterms may herald an upscale future for the party that once dominated union halls. Ball and Enjeti envision working-class populism as a panacea for America’s political deadlock, but the realignment may already be underway — on terms Ball would find unfavorable. The Democratic Party’s swift rejection of Bernie Sanders suggests committed populists may have a future on only one side of the aisle.

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