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Why There Can Be No Democratic Left Without an Energetic Left

Some thoughts on disagreement

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

A number of pieces have come across my screen in the past week commenting, critically, on the way “the radical left” has responded to Trump. One, published in the Washington Post, announced boldly that “The Far Left is Winning the Democratic Civil War.” A second, written by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine, is a disparaging polemic about “Why Trump’s Assault on Democracy Doesn’t Bother the Radical Left.”

In the past year I have published many critiques of colleagues on the left who have written broadside criticisms of “liberals” for their “tyrannophobia.” (Many of my critiques have been collected in my just-published book #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, which can be downloaded here for free at Public Seminar books.) I believe that there is a difference between critique and denunciation. I also believe there is a difference between critically engaging people with whom you may disagree about a matter of political judgment, on the one hand, and confronting adversaries or enemies on the other. And as someone who doesn’t think categorical denunciations of “liberals” do much good intellectually or politically, I also don’t think categorical denunciations of “the left” or “the radical left” do much good either. And so I have a real problem with these recent chastisements of the left, and especially with Chait’s chastisement of certain writers on the left.

I do not agree with Jedediah Purdy​’s recent Dissent piece. I do not know Purdy personally, though we are Facebook friends. But he is a smart guy who has written many fine pieces with which I do agree, and more importantly that I respect; he is friends and colleagues with many people I like and admire; and I think it is both counterproductive and idiotic to regard whatever differences of opinion I might have with him as signs of pathology or as some kind of casus belli. I prefer, instead, to argue. What I don’t like about Purdy’s recent piece is precisely its dismissive tone towards some important recent books and essays written by some other smart people who are much more concerned than he is about the specific political dangers represented by Trump and Trumpism. What I disagree with is Purdy’s suggestion that Trump’s authoritarian populism is really a symptom of deeper social ills, and that whereas “liberals” worry too much about questions of “norm erosion” in an already flawed liberal democracy, “Answering basic questions about the relationship between democracy and capitalism is the only credible response to the present crisis.” I disagree with this for two reasons. The first is because while it is true that authoritarian populism has a number of “deep” causes, some — but not all — related to what many like to call “neoliberalism,” it is also true that authoritarian populism is a very significant, consequential, and dangerous political phenomenon in its own right, and ought to be addressed as such. The second is because my reading of the history of the 20th century, including the history of 20th century Marxism in all of its variants, leads me to be very skeptical of the idea that answering “basic questions” about “capitalism and democracy” is likely to furnish compelling, mass-based political responses to the specific challenges currently before us. Indeed, I worry that the rhetoric of “basic” reproduces some of the problems with an entire tradition of thinking about “bases and superstructures.” But I do not disagree with the idea that the current right-wing assaults on liberal democracy are linked to attacks on the welfare state and on important social and economic rights, nor do I disagree that it is important to defend these rights and also to deepen and extend them in ways that address some of the “precarities” and insecurities of “post-Fordist” forms of “flexible accumulation,” aka “neoliberalism,” properly understood. I simply do not think that these efforts are more fundamental than efforts to defend and deepen liberal democracy itself as a political regime; and indeed, at this moment, I believe that it is important to put liberal democracy first.

I regard these issues as important issues worth debating.

But I find Chait’s piece distasteful, and I see no good purpose in describing Purdy as a “radical leftist,” whatever that even means. He is a writer for Dissent — the same journal that recently published my piece entitled “Putting Liberal Democracy First” — and for a range of other fine publications, and he is a contributor to important debates on what I would call “the democratic left” (I first learned this term from my old teacher and colleague, the democratic socialist Michael Harrington; and indeed, the DSA Newsletter is called The Democratic Left). It’s fine to disagree with this argument or that one, this person or that one. But we will all be better off if we stop using the rhetoric of denunciation — “radical leftist,” “extremist,” but also, sometimes, “liberal” or even “neoliberal,” which are also often used as terms of abuse — and reserve it for real enemies. And if we try to keep our disagreements focused on the important matters at hand rather than on personalities or motives or ideological labels. Debate always proceeds best in this way, but especially now, given the stakes, and given so much about which we agree — and given how important it is for us to try to develop better forms of mutual understanding among ourselves, so that what disagreements we have are productive.

In the same way, the recent primary victories of many candidates broadly on “the left” do not represent a “far left victory” in a “Democratic civil war.”

One reason is because the candidates in question — some members of DSA, some more conventional left liberals — are not “far leftists,” as the Post article itself makes clear. Here are some of the reasons that article furnishes for worrying about “the far left” and talking about why things are so bad for “Democratic moderates”: in Nebraska a liberal social worker and 45-year old woman beat out a 68-year old male party stalwart and former Congressman, running on a campaign of “Medicare for all”; in Pennsylvania another Democratic party stalwart who opposes abortion rights and sanctuary cities and sometimes speaks favorably about Trump was defeated by another woman who “attacked him relentlessly” for his publicly-stated affinities for Trump; and in Pittsburgh two “card-carrying members of Democratic Socialists of America” won important local primaries (I belong to DSA; I don’t carry a “card” and didn’t realize that there were membership cards). What about any of these results represents a victory for “the far left?” Again, it is possible in any one of those races to be unhappy with the result on a wide range of grounds (though I myself have heard nothing to make me unhappy in the slightest, and I regard these hard-fought victories by serious left activists willing to do the hard work of running for office as welcome). But that is one thing. Describing the results as “far leftist” is something else. Something wrong, because it implies that these democratic activists are somehow “beyond the pale,” and they are not, and indeed their activism testifies to their commitment to democratic politics.

The second reason is because there is no “civil war” in the Democratic party. There is serious political debate and contention, on the left and within the Democratic party, and this contention does represent a continuation of many of the debates that unfolded in 2016 during the contest between Sanders and Clinton. Some of that was heated and even nasty — as political debates often are. Much of it was also very productive. And it continues. It does have the potential to become something of a “civil war” — if the rhetoricians of demonization have their way, and if we all learn nothing from the past. It also has the potential to be something very intellectually and political productive for countering Trumpism and for reviving both the Democratic party and American liberalism. But this potential will only be realized, possibly, if participants do their best to avoid becoming partisans of rhetorical denunciation.

There are real enemies out there. And it is important for us to pursue our disagreements among ourselves with a healthy sense of proportion, so that we can engage and defeat these enemies and promote the broadly egalitarian values we share.

In my recent Dissent piece, I quoted Yanis Varoufakis on how the anger of many people on the left towards “the liberal establishment” is understandable, but that “the decision of many leftists to maintain an equal distance between Macron and Le Pen is inexcusable.” I believe the sentiment behind these words. All of them. Including the first part, about the legitimacy of much of the disappointment and anger out there toward the current Democratic establishment. And that is why I deplore the smugness of Chait’s piece. The debates that Chait criticizes — about the future of the Democratic party, about the need to combine defense of democracy with defense of social justice, and about the desirability of running insurgent challengers in primaries — are healthy ones. And the recent left primary victories are a hopeful sign of the kinds of political energy that we will need to cultivate if we are to get out of the political morass in which we currently are stuck, and to move forward toward greater democratic equality and social justice.

When I think energy, I think Maynard Ferguson’s big band. I’ve always loved this one, appropriately titled “Left Bank Express”:

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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