Bernie, Kamala, and the Left’s War of Mutually Assured Destruction

The flame wars of the left are erupting again in depressingly familiar ways. Ironically, even as the institutional Democratic Party is demonstrating a commitment to more economic populist stances through its “Better Deal” messaging aimed at working families, the social media warriors of the left and center-left are determined to burn one another to the ground for control of the party, no matter the cost. At a time when solidarity is needed most to face an array of outside threats ranging from the horrors of the Trump Administration to the apathy and distrust of ever-larger swaths of the electorate, the pundits and social media wannabes of the left seem more intent than ever on pointless division. The path forward is obvious, but neither side seems willing to accept it.

The latest conflagration was ignited in part by Washington Monthly alum Ryan Cooper’s piece establishing the reasons for economic populist distrust of establishment favorite 2020 hopefuls Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Deval Patrick. Cooper made some valid points about the histories of all three candidates that make many Occupy-aligned Democrats shudder: Booker’s defense of Wall Street and charter schools, Harris’ failure to charge now-Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for his crimes with One West Bank, and Deval Patrick’s employment as managing director with Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, for starters. These are not minor complaints.

The obvious problem, of course, is that in targeting black candidates Booker, Harris and Patrick specifically, Cooper only gives further fuel to those who claim that Sanders-aligned economic progressives have racist motivations–or at least that they are tone-deaf and poor allies on matters of identity and social justice. That the writers of these critiques tend to be predominantly white and male certainly doesn’t help, either. Regardless of the motivations, it’s self-defeating for the democratic socialist left to take this particular tack: as our own Martin Longman pointed out, economic populists will not win the argument within the party if they openly antagonize not only the wealthy donor base but also older and minority voters.

On the other hand, there is a substantial faction of establishment players who, rather than seeking to repair and mitigate the causes the conflict in the Sanders-Clinton primary, are eagerly hoping to perpetuate it. They see the young, insurgent, aggressively anti-Wall Street wing as illegitimate interlopers, easily propagandized dupes, and overprivileged “alt left” bigots. The large number of women and people of color who are part of the Sanders coalition are erased and dismissed in often ugly ways. The influential partisans in center-left think tanks and media organizations who take this position seem to believe that democratic socialists will simply disappear into the woodwork if they are aggressively dragged and marginalized, allowing them to resume conducting business as usual within the party. This would be a mistake: like the Dean and Obama waves before them, Sanders Democrats have been sweeping into leadership positions in state and local Democratic organizations all across the country, and have no intention of going away quietly.

The worst elements of both sides are engaging cynically in the ongoing civil war. Some Sanders supporters eagerly want to see him run again in 2020, and are actively seeking to kneecap every potential challenger to him–especially those who might be able to more easily secure Hillary Clinton’s coalition of older and minority voters. If not racist and sexist in motivation, this strategy is racist and sexist in its effects and will attract the worst elements of society. On the other hand, establishment moderates since the early days of the Democratic Leadership Council have sought a marriage of the much-vaunted “Emerging Democratic Majority” with an educated, upper-middle-class fiscally centrist donor class. This has been to the detriment of the economy as a whole, and to the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party in general. They have no intention of taking a sharper stand against the predatory financial sector, and actively seek to use ideologically aligned women and minority candidates as a wedge against more radical activists who might threaten to alienate the wealthy donor class they have sought to woo away from the Republican Party since the Reagan era.

It is no exaggeration to say that if the Democratic Party fractures in 2020 along the same lines it did in 2016, it may not recover. Votes for Clinton over Sanders notwithstanding, women and minority voters are not ideologically more moderate than whites and men within the party. If the fault lines once again pit more moderate minority candidates against more economically progressive white candidates, the resulting warfare will create the worst of all worlds: watered down economic policy that fails to win back disaffected white working class voters, combined with a bruising primary trading insults that could demotivate both class-conscious millennials and identity-conscious older women and minorities, depending on the eventual victor.

All of this is easily avoidable as long as well-meaning activists on both sides demonstrate solidarity with one another’s priorities.

Democratic socialists must avoid making the unforced errors of the Sanders campaign, failing to articulate an understanding that social justice is also a key component of economic justice, and that merely making advances in the class war will not resolve institutional discrimination on the basis of identity. Making an example of the top three African-American hopefuls in the 2020 field is a terrible mistake regardless of intent. It will backfire, and tarnish the entire movement as motivated by barely-contained bigotry, regardless of how many Nina Turners and Nomiki Konsts become its public face.

For its part, the establishment must stop treating class war activists as second class citizens in a Democratic Party whose greatest President of the 20th century was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, not Bill Clinton. Just as Democrats from across the spectrum rightly pushed back on the abhorrent notion that the party should open its tent to anti-choice candidates, so too is it perfectly legitimate to say that it is unacceptable to open the presidential primary tent to candidates who kowtow to Wall Street. Just as Democrats would not countenance a candidate who served as executive director of the National Rifle Association, so too should Democrats not accept a candidate who served as managing director of Mitt Romney’s predatory corporate raider firm. For many core base Democrats, privatizing public education through “school choice” is just as rank an offense as privatizing prisons or Social Security. And for a great many Democrats, the fact that a criminal thief like Steve Mnuchin walks openly around our nation’s capital as a free man rankles every bit as much or more as the fact that serial sexual predator Donald Trump does. It is easily arguable that Mnuchin damaged and destroyed a thousand times more lives in just a few years of illegal predatory foreclosures, than Donald Trump has in his entire lifetime of ill deeds.  These are not illegitimate positions, and it would do a world of good for establishment players to stand alongside younger progressive activists in solidarity with their interests rather than attempt to sideline them to protect the feelings of the party’s donors and their efforts to win over upscale Romney voters with mutual fund portfolios.

Both sides must meet one another halfway. Voices within the Sanders coalition that actively attempt to dismiss social discrimination as less important than class war must be ostracized from within not just because they are wrong, but because they actively hurt the cause of securing economic justice against the .1% in a party whose base has suffered greatly from that discrimination. Democratic socialists must seek to educate and persuade candidates who have crossed red lines in the past, rather than dismiss them as impure and unacceptable out of hand. Kamala Harris in particular is a very progressive candidate in many respects, and while she has made some decisions that rightly rankle activists for economic equality, they should not be disqualifying this early in the game.

Establishment figures, meanwhile, should hew closer to the example set by Schumer and Pelosi than by some in the center-left media and think tank ecosystem. They must acknowledge the need for a much more forceful economic progressivism and accept that economic progressives also have valid litmus tests every bit as reasonable as those of social issue advocacy groups. Individuals who insist on trying to ostracize democratic socialists and treat their anti-corporate concerns as secondary or motivated by bigotry should be gently pushed aside themselves.

The only path forward for both sides lies in mutual solidarity and respect. The alternative is mutually assured destruction.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.