If you’re online at all, or even following the news, you may have picked up on some tension between between the Democratic Party and its younger, more activist Left flank. I’ve seen some confusion about where this tension is coming from. Let’s talk about it.
So, a lot of people have a view of politics that is on a line. In that line, the alignment of the parties would look something like this:
Looked at in a line, it is genuinely difficult to understand the level of hostility between the Left (represented here by the DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, logo) and the Liberals in the Democratic party. They (mostly) aren’t separated by that much space. So why does the establishment Democratic Party work so hard to suppress the Left? And why is the Left so distrustful of the party?
That’s where intersections become helpful. Let’s stretch that continuum out.
Here, you might get a better idea for why there is so much hostility between the Left and the liberals. They aren’t separated by much space, but they’re going in opposite directions.
‘The Left’, broadly defined, is not just progressive or just populist, but instead falls at the intersection of progressive and populist. They don’t agree on everything, but they do have fairly similar foundational principles.
Progressives tend to believe, essentially, that all people are created equal, but that there are systems of oppression that get in the way of equitable representation. They may have different ways of solving those problems — more radical progressives tend to favor complete abolition of those systems, while moderate progressives may favor slower, more measured change — but they tend to acknowledge that 1) we are equal, 2) we should be treated as equals, and 3) there exist systems that fundamentally do not do so.
Here’s where we get to the more challenging aspect: Populism. Dr. Pippa Norris, in an interview at Vox.com, defined populism as:
Populism for me has three dimensions. One of which is an appeal to popular sovereignty over and above liberal democracy. The argument is that moral virtue and power should be with the ordinary people and not the elites.
The second dimension is anti-establishment, and this is opposed not just to political and economic elites but also to other perceived power-holders, like intellectuals or journalists or other groups at the top of society.
And then thirdly, even though it’s about popular sovereignty in practice, there aren’t that many mechanisms. Mechanisms like public opinion polls or other forms of democratic referendum are typically weak.Sean Illing and Pippa Norris in a Vox.com Conversation.
We’re going to ignore the last one for now, since that is about how populist regimes typically come to power in modern democratic systems, but is not inherent to the belief or execution of populism in other cultures. That leaves us with two essential aspects, linked by a distrust of elites. According to Norris, both manifest as “a way to critique liberal democracy.” (You might begin to see the problem the Left has with Liberals) Populism is not inherently conservative or inherently progressive; it is a belief about who should have power.
So, to offer my own spin on her definition, populists believe that ‘common people’ should control the levers of power. And, as with progressivism, that can come in degrees. If you’ve ever been in a union job, you’ve engaged in some form of populism as you and your fellow workers collaborated to take some control of your labor back from your bosses. A more radical end of that spectrum might look something like the French Revolution.
The American Left, then, broadly defined above, comes at an intersection of progressive and populist.
Party politics, unlike movement politics, tends to be less ideological and more coalitional. They tend to be amorphous, collecting people behind one or two simple principles. For the Republican Party, that unifying principle is conservatism, or hierarchy, an abiding belief that some people are just better and society should reward those people. There is elitist hierarchy, where those who ‘succeed’ at capitalism by birth, luck, or brutality have earned the right to rule, and to entrench their success permanently. There is populist hierarchy, typically built in America around white, male grievance — a belief that the wrong people (Muslims, Blacks, immigrants, etc…) are being artificially lifted above their station, are jumping the line, and should get back where they belong. But it is that belief in hierarchy that unites them.
The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is built around elitism. There are conservative elitists, who share the Republican belief about ‘succeeding’ at capitalism, though they tend to be less extreme. The progressive elitists understand that there are structural barriers to equality, but believe that the best people to solve those problems are not the people who have experienced them, but the elites who have the most power, resources, and education.
This leaves one quadrant — the Left, or the intersection between populism and progressivism — which is largely unrepresented in mainstream politics. It also drives a lot of the mistrust between the two groups. To mainstream Democrats, the Left don’t respect tradition or authority, favoring ideological battles rather than strategic ones and dismissing decades of conventional economic wisdom. To the Left, Democrats don’t respect working people or lived experience, favoring the opinions of the wealthy and powerful and willfully ignoring the conflict of interest that drives their recommendations.
They can find some common ground in certain progressive causes, though they often find themselves strongly disagreeing about how to approach the problem. Democrats will typically depend heavily on the opinions of wealthy property owners and prominent academics — though it’s worth noting that, because the people making the laws are more on the wealthy side than the academic one, they’re not very good at judging the quality of academic work, and they tend to instinctively favor things that would help keep their wealth intact.
The Left, on the other hand, tends to favor a diversity of voices. Academics opinions are certainly heard, but they aren’t given absolute priority over the lived experiences of the people involved in the struggle. This position is articulated very well by Dr. Angela Davis in a 2014 interview with Frank Barat:
Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles, you will always defeat your own purposes if you cannot imagine the people around whom you are struggling as equal partners. Therefore if, and this is one of the problems with all of the reform movements, if you think of the prisoners simply as the objects of the charity of others, you defeat the very purpose of antiprison work. You are constituting them as an inferior in the process of trying to defend their rights.
The abolitionist movement has learned that without the actual participation of prisoners, there can be no campaign.From chapter 2 of Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement.
To Democrats and liberals, this feels irresponsible. It feels like ceding authority to people who have not earned it, or to people who have not shown they can be trusted with it. It’s not realistic, to the Democrats, to allow people who have not been properly vetted by the Market to have at the levers of power. They feel like they have no control, no guarantee of stability, when that happens.
This is obviously a simplification, but I do think it’s helpful in examining why there is so much tension between the Liberals and the Left. They are rarely working towards the same long term goal, and when they are, they have fundamentally different beliefs in how those goals should be achieved.
That is not to say that this was always the case, or always will be. Because parties are coalitional rather than ideological, they are always in flux. But I think it’s important to recognize where the two sides are coming from. There are good faith disagreements that can be had by both sides, because they have different goals. Only time will tell how those disagreements get resolved.