Why Can't the Left Win?

Advice and constructive criticism from observers who believe that America would benefit from a healthier opposition to the governing coalition

Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters

President Trump wields great power. Those who believe him to be a cruel, dishonest man who is glaringly unqualified to preside over the executive branch or U.S. foreign policy, should welcome challenges from the left, right, and center to his administration.

But is the American left capable of political success right now?

Its recent win-loss record is poor, whether one begins with the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war marches of 2003, the push for immigration reform, Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter. And observing the left during the first 100 days of the Trump administration, I am beginning to despair that its pathologies are growing in strength at the very moment when the worst of the right is ascendant, too.

I am not a Leftist. But I want a country where the best versions of left and right are vying against one another—and one where overdue reforms are made to the immigration, finance, and criminal-justice systems. I believe constructive criticism can improve any coalition. And such criticism is on offer from leftists, liberals, conservatives, and others who believe that a healthy left has something vital to offer America.

What follows is a roundup of critiques offered in that spirit. It is neither exhaustive nor definitive. But I hope that it can serve a starting point for an informative conversation.

The Limits of Opprobrium and Stigma

When Abraham Lincoln was 33 years old, he gave a speech inside a Presbyterian church to a temperance society. His message: The assembled ought to be nicer to drinkers and sellers of alcohol, rather than shunning them, or denouncing them as moral pestilences. Indeed, they ought to use “kindly persuasion,” even if a man’s drunkenness had caused misery to his wife, or left his children hungry and naked with want.

For people are never less likely to change, to convert to new ways of thinking or acting, than when it means joining the ranks of their denouncers.

To expect otherwise, “to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation ... and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature,” Lincoln explained. “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause.”

However, Lincoln cautioned, dictate to a man’s judgment, command his action, or mark him to be despised, “and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart. And even though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”

It was and remains extremely counterproductive for the left to treat Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” especially given how tiny a percentage of his followers would need to be converted away from the president to reorient political power in Washington, D.C. For directing me to a Lincoln speech I’d never read before, I thank Andrew Sullivan, who quoted it to support the argument that “you will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.”

Forget What Is “Normal”

A typical objection to calls to contest reactionary premises on the merits, and to persuade adherents of reaction, is that doing so somehow validates their ideas. “Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being ‘normalized,’” Sullivan wrote, anticipating the objection. “But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Our job in these circumstances is not to condescend but to engage — or forfeit the politics of the moment (and the future) to reaction.”

Noah Millman has fleshed out why the posture of preventing normalization is doomed:

Whoever says that Trump shouldn’t be “normalized” is implying that somebody — the press, perhaps? — is in a position to decide what is normal, and to inform everybody else of that fact. But that’s not how norms work, and neither the press nor anybody else is in a position either to grant or withhold recognition to the new government.

In fact, the word is a way of distracting from one of the crucial jobs at hand. Trump, for example, is on strong legal ground when he says that he is exempt from conflict of interest laws. But laws can be changed — and perhaps they should be. To achieve that requires making a case, not that what Trump is doing isn’t “normal,” but that it is a bad thing worth prohibiting by law. Saying “we mustn’t normalize this behavior” rather than “we need to stop this behavior” is really a way of saying that you don’t want to engage in politics, but would rather just signal to those who already agree with us just how appalled we are. And haven’t we learned already the dire consequences of substituting virtue signaling for politics?

Matt Yglesias has reached similar conclusions.“Normalization, in this context, is typically cast as a form of complicity with Trump in which the highest possible premium is placed on maintaining a rigid state of alert and warning people that he is not just another politician whom you may or may not agree with on the issues,” he wrote. “But several students of authoritarian populist movements abroad have a different message. To beat Trump, his opponents need to practice ordinary humdrum politics.”

So far, too few are doing so.

Stop Rejecting the Ordinary Work of Politics

Reflecting on what he called “the woke identity,” Freddie DeBoer observed a tendency among some leftists to forcefully reject the work of persuasion with excuses like, “It’s not my job to educate you.” The not-yet-woke are to be chided, not engaged.

“The problem with making your political program the assembly of a moral aristocracy is that hierarchy always requires exclusivity,” DeBoer argues. “A fundamental, structural impediment to liberal political victory is that their preferred kind of moral engagement necessarily limits the number of adherents they can win. It’s just math: you can’t grow a mass party when the daily operation of your movement involves finding more and more heretics to ostracize from the community.”

He adds that “political progress is always and only about pulling the edge cases into a particular orbit and hoping that in time they will come to circle closer and closer to your goals.”

He therefore rejects “the performative uselessness that is the call out.”

Call Out Hate, Not Faux Pas

A related concern was raised by Ezra Klein and Chris Hayes in a podcast conversation where they agreed that while objecting to racism or other bigotries is important—as deBoer would agree—the left must take care, as the universe of things deemed problematic continues to expand, that it doesn’t stray into enforcing elite manners against people who mean no harm and harbor no hate when violating them. What’s more, it must be better at clarifying why some of what may strike observers as mere elite manners is, in fact, a substantive good that deserves to be emphasized.

As they put it:

Hayes: Issues of social justice have been understood by large parts of the populace as essentially elite manners.

Klein: Which, they sometimes have that dimension.

Hayes: Those two things are bound together. So if you watch a farce, the person at the dinner party who doesn’t know which fork to use, that’s who you root for. And in our politics a huge part of the population has understood what I think are––what are––genuine struggles for social justice and equality as essentially elite manners. Michelle Goldberg makes this great point. And it was my experience as well. She was like, ‘When I would go to rallies, a lot of people told me about political correctness and almost no one told me about NAFTA.’ It was the violations of the taboos that people liked, at least the hard core supporters who would go to the rallies, more than trade. Because at some level, their understanding of it, it was the person at the dinner party with everyone with their fine china and their 9 different kinds of forks just drinking the soup out of the bowl. And it was like, that’s my dude.

And precisely for the reasons you identify.

Precisely because there’s been this way in which the cosmopolitan elites, the guardians of culture, the people that cluster in these urban centers, have a set of social values and social taboos that I think are informed by genuine commitments toward justice, but also have this aspect of elite manners and that are understood by huge parts of society as elite manners.

Indeed, there is widespread frustration, even among leftists clustered in those urban areas, about the degree to which ephemeral changes in elite manners are policed.

Make Organizing About Effectiveness and Winning

Last summer, DeRay Mckesson, the civil-rights activist best known for his work with Black Lives Matter, worried that “there is a noticeable absence of grace in the movement space,” that “some people are more addicted to fighting than winning,” and that the personal backgrounds of organizers are too often treated as if they are a proxy for their effectiveness. “We have started to police people's authenticity by their proximity to trauma, not their proximity to the work,” he said. “Both my parents were drug addicts. My father raised us. My mother left. I know what it's like to sleep on the floor when they shoot too close to the house. That doesn't make me a better organizer. It could actually just make me more traumatized. How do we stop thinking about proximity to trauma as the thing that makes you the best organizer?”

Implicit in that formulation is the notion that the best organizing is that which achieves ends in the real world, not that which most defers to or elevates the traumatized.

The year before, Randall Kennedy, the eminent Harvard Law School professor, argued in a sprawling Harper’s magazine essay that while “the politics of respectability has occasionally inflicted deep wounds on the black community” and is often misguided, “these misapplications of respectability politics should not obscure an essential fact: any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived.” In Kennedy’s view, “the politics of respectability is a tactic of public relations that is, per se, neither necessarily good nor bad. A sound assessment of its deployment in a given instance depends on its goals, the manner in which it is practiced, and the context within which a given struggle is waged. Its association with esteemed figures and episodes in African-American history suggests that the politics of respectability warrants a more respectful hearing than it has recently received.”

He proceeds to facilitate that hearing, harkening back to specific civil-rights era victories, warning against “forcing a Manichaean choice between outward-facing protest and inward-facing character building,” and concluding that “by dint of intelligent, brave, persistent collective action, African Americans have helped tremendously to transform the United States in ways that offer grounds for encouragement and hope. Indeed, the tone of indignant futility struck by some opponents of black respectability politics is worrying. The politics of black respectability has not banished antiblack racism, but it has improved the racial situation dramatically and has kept alive some black people who might otherwise be dead.”

These two voices might well disagree on the most effective tactics for the left, but both expressed frustration at the impulse to make winning subservient to other concerns.

Participate in Local Politics

Fifteen years ago, when I was a student, undergraduates at the Claremont Colleges were upset about abusive policing. As I recalled in a recent Los Angeles Times column, “In the spring of 1999, Irvin Landrum Jr., an 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed during a traffic stop. The officers who shot him said they recovered a gun, but it was last registered to the police chief in a neighboring municipality. Calls for an independent investigation into the shooting, and for reforms to policing in Claremont and beyond, were the biggest activist causes during my years on campus.”

Today, Claremont students still care about abusive policing. “But there is no major movement to transform the Claremont City Council or police department,” I observed. “Students most recently attracted media attention for mobilizing against an individual whose politics they dislike: They shut down a speech by Heather Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute scholar who studies policing and has criticized Black Lives Matter. But even if Mac Donald never speaks in public again, police departments will continue to use excessive force. There’s no plausible cause and effect I can discern.”

Such is the norm at lots of colleges: Student activists focus on campus events rather than local politics. As Robert J. Smith and Whitney Tymas explained on election night, however, the left made important gains in criminal-justice reform at the local level. And there is no reason why focused reformers cannot achieve much, much more:

 While significant advances in climate change and immigration reform require congressional action, criminal-justice reform is an entirely different beast. The center of gravity for meaningful reform tends to be local. Should police officers use stop and frisk tactics? Conduct invasive raids of homes while investigating nonviolent offenses? Use military style vehicles? Those are decisions made by individual police departments or city councils, and are influenced by community advocates. Should prosecutors ask for bail, and how much? Prosecute nonviolent drug possession cases? Prosecute homelessness related offenses, such as sit-sleep-lie bans? Transfer juveniles to adult court? Seek the death penalty?

For those decisions, too, local politics matter … Roughly 50 million people live in just 15 of the counties that Clinton won this week. Some of these counties voted for Clinton by a margin of 2-1. If disheartened citizens and advocates chose to refocus their resources and attention to pushing reforms in these places, they could quickly see significant gains in the battle to end mass incarceration and help secure relief for millions of Americans.

The Perils of Privilege

That’s the title of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s nuanced, book-length deconstruction of the privilege framework, especially when it operates in its accusatory form, rather than its original sense. Written prior to the 2016 election, its afterword comments on Trump’s rise.

What if Trump’s appeal isn’t (just) that he gives the impression of caring about overlooked communities in Appalachia, but that he confers victimhood status to great swaths of the population who aren’t actually victims? Trumpism isn’t about weaving poor and working-class white men back into discussions of socioeconomic inequality. It’s about declaring whiteness and maleness forms of marginalization.

Why might that be attractive to a large group of voters?

One answer is illuminated earlier in the book. Built into the privilege framework is “the idea that the normal state of affairs is for things to be going terribly,” Maltz Bovy writes:

It can seem as if the desired goal is for everyone to be oppressed, rather than for all to be free from oppression. Is it a problem that white killers are captured alive by the police? That white drug addicts appear in the media as real people with a medical condition? Or is the problem that black killers and drug addicts, respectively, don’t get that treatment? It seems right to use ‘privilege’s your point is that some people do indeed have it too easy.

That is, after all, what ‘privilege’ implies.

Which is why it’s such an odd fit for cases where the point being made is that the world is just for some and unjust for others. Calling justice “privilege” is just another way of highlighting that not all experience it. The problem is that it also implies that no one should… The privilege framing, with its focus on unearned advantage rather than unjust disadvantage, doesn’t fit with situations where even the “privileged” person is still quite screwed.

Insofar as the left was operating within the accusatory privilege framework circa 2015 and 2016, it ceded this advantage to Trump: It seemed to imply  a zero-sum view of the world (giving a home-field advantage for a politician like Trump), forcing a choice between pursuing social justice for minorities and improving the lot of the white working class. And it ceded that advantage for nothing, for as Maltz Bovy points out in her conclusion, there is no reason one must describe society in terms of privilege in order to “acknowledge the unique struggles of those facing more than one form of systemic discrimination.” There are myriad ways of addressing injustice that don’t end up “inaccurately categorizing huge swaths of humanity under the haves umbrella.”

What Other Critiques Should the Left Consider?

I’ve yet to present the ideas of Richard Rorty—expect them in a forthcoming article. Have readers encountered other critiques the left should at least consider as it attempts to regroup and achieve some sort of victory in a country where Trump is president? Email conor@theatlantic.com with links, original thoughts, or responses.

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