The Agony of the Radical Democrat
things were simpler when radicals didn't bother to ask anything of the Democrats
Consider a certain kind of progressive who would prefer to think of himself as left-of-liberal. He’s a policy guy of some type. Like a lot of people these days, he fancies himself a critic of establishment liberals. Liberals are useless squishes! We need bold, radical action these days, says Left-of-Liberal. And you know who’s not giving us bold, radical action? The Democrats! And so they complain about the Democrats. Again and again. And again. What’s more, thanks to social media, the distance between Left-of-Liberal and the Democrats he despises is very short. They can’t avoid each other in the hothouse that is the online space. So he complains at Democrats and the people who advocate for the party, and they complain back, again, and again, and again. Thus a very bad vibe has spread across the land.
What I’d like to advance today is less of an argument and more of a story. The left-of-liberal scenario certainly was not unheard of, in my earlier days in politics, but it happened much less often. It happened much less often because it used to be the case that radicals and Democrats lived in very different worlds. When I was in college (2000ish to 2004ish) I was very active in my campus’s Progressive Student Alliance, which was the far-lefty group that was (unsurprisingly for the times) mostly devoted to anti-Iraq War, anti-War on Terror activism. Separately, I went to meetings where a couple of guys tried to get the College Democrats off the ground. (It may say something about college, or only my non-competitive commuter public school, that the PSA had dozens of committed members while the Dems could never attract more than a handful of people.) Here’s the thing: as far as I’m aware I was the only PSA member who ever attended a single College Dems meeting while I was there, and this was not at all surprising to anyone. Because the PSA was for socialists and radicals, and socialists and radicals did not get invested in the Democrats, understanding them to be a capitalist imperialist etc. party, and most Democrats would not get involved with groups like the PSA, seeing it as a hive of unrealistic sanctimonious purists etc.
Now, was it good for socialists/Marxists/radicals to wash their hands of the Democratic party, and vice versa? I don’t think so, no. The basic dilemma for the left is that you need to simultaneously a) understand that the Democrats will always fail you, and will do so because of their structural position within the system, not the individual integrity of specific Democrats and b) recognize that partisan politics is entirely too powerful a tool to simply wash your hands of, and that if the odds of Democrats doing good are a 1,000,000:1, the odds of a third party or the Republicans doing good are even less. This is not a comfortable position to be in and I take little pleasure in laying it out for you like this. It also wasn’t good for the Democrats to completely shut their ears to the radicals, as the radicals were right about many things - conspicuously at the time, we were correct about the War on Terror and the invasion in Iraq, where a lot of Democratic leadership was wrong, as well as about gay marriage, the dangers of Wall Street running loose, and sundry other issues. I can see the downsides of the social distance between these groups.
However, from a position of basic comity, the strict divide between radicals and Democrats did have the salutary benefit that people weren’t at each other’s throats all the time. Because there was such mutual disdain between Democrats and radicals, and because they resided in such (physically and intellectually) separate spaces, they didn’t spend a lot of time taking potshots at each other. Today, though, the two groups seem to be in constant contact with each other, contact that’s almost entirely unhappy for both. For a lot of people talking about left politics has become a major drag because so much of it involves yelling about what the Democrats should or can do, debated between people with a yawning chasm between their basic political views. Part of this is simply technological: in 2004, say, I was checking my brand-new Gmail account, but Facebook was restricted to a bare handful of tony universities and Twitter, Instagram, and Tik Tok didn’t yet exist. I did talk politics online, but on listservs that distributed emails to a self-selected group of people who had signed up for them and who were almost entirely left activists. I’m sure center-left incrementalist types had similar. Now, communicative technologies ensure that we’re all stuck in the same endless car ride together. But political changes contributed to today’s unhappiness as well.
What happened is that Bernie Sanders ran two credible-but-still-clearly-losing campaigns to be nominated as the presidential candidate of the Democratic party. Helping to spur even more energy into American radicalism than that which had already been generated through the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street, Bernie’s movement minted untold thousands of new socialists. Crucially, the Bernie generation had no intrinsic distance from the Democratic party - Bernie was running to lead the Democratic party. Many of Bernie’s supporters were liberals, or else sort of hanging in that vague left-of-liberal-but-not-explicitly-socialist space. Bernie’s social democratic views became their lodestar, and the adoption of Medicare For All as perhaps the central goal of lefty politics is telling - M4A keeping the essentially private ownership of the medical system intact, in contrast to nationalization. Either way, the realm of the possible in partisan politics seemed suddenly much wider, which was especially appealing to a generation of people who have been financially screwed relative to their parents. And few of them had backgrounds as radicals, with explicit disdain for Democrats, to temper their enthusiasm or keep their expectations in check.
Sadly, as I keep reminding people, Bernie lost twice. But his relative success made control of the Democratic party seem like a fight worth contesting. The vicious infighting of 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Sanders supporters seems to have presaged a perpetual combat for the heart of a party that, a generation earlier, most radicals assumed was beyond saving.
What I find so strange about the left-of-liberals of the world is that they constantly say, “The Democrats are so feckless and corrupt! Why won’t they support my radical agenda?” And the obvious answer is because they’re feckless and corrupt, dummy! Your own analysis answers your question! There’s this relentless stepping-on-a-rake dynamic with left-of-liberals today: they have this systemic critique of Democrats (they’re in thrall to moneyed interests and captured by Clintonian assumptions and truly a center-right party etc etc) that perfectly explains why the Democrats won’t do what they want, but they still spend endless hours screaming at the heavens about what the Democrats won’t do. Now, personally, I think the left-of-liberal theory of the world - that the Democrats could pass all manner of radical legislation and fundamentally change our system if they just wanted it more - is transparently incorrect. We’re a 50-50 Democrat/Republican nation among consistent voters, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the third of Americans who don’t vote are some sort of radical bloc, and the Republican party is much more uniformly conservative than the Democratic party is uniformly progressive. But set all of that aside, and you’re still left with the fact that the American radical position explains perfectly why the Democrats won’t give radicals what they want: it’s a ruling-class party. Take your own perspective seriously!
I voted last week because it costs me nothing to do so, and I think there are better or worse outcomes depending on electoral politics. But I never expect anything from the Democrats. Never. I don’t think the primary was stolen from Bernie in 2016 or 2020, but even if I did I wouldn’t get all hepped up about it because that would simply be Democrats engaging in business as usual. And I still know some old-school commies who call Bernie a sheepdog and who never sit around whining about how the Democrats don’t come through for them. Because they’re commies and they see the Democrats as a tool of the ruling class, obviously. And I’ll tell you, while I have deep reservations about giving up on partisan politics in this way, it has a certain logic that left-of-liberal types lack, and is also a more pleasant way to live. If you think the Democrats are full of shit, stop expecting them to give you want you want! I get it: the best thing would be if the Democrats worked as hard to placate the hard left as the Republicans work to placate the hard right. But your own theory of the world tells you why that won’t happen, and I’m growing increasingly tired of listening to frogs complain that they keep getting stung by the same scorpion.