The Fractured Left? Bernie Sanders, #BlackLivesMatter, and the Future of Liberal Ideology

The confrontation at Netroots Nation over the weekend has opened up lots of discussion about the relationship between the economically-oriented progressives in the Sanders camp and racial justice activists. If you haven’t already, you should definitely read Hans Noel’s post here on Mischiefs about ideology, activists and parties. I’m in broad agreement with Hans that activists “shape ideology, and make parties ideological” (paraphrased for verb tense). Here, I’d like to think a bit about how these movements might shape the Democratic Party’s ideology in the future – why they might do so and whether economic and racial justice activists will be likely to create a cohesive ideology on the left.

These movements have grown over the past year – and both have visibly affected the positions and priorities taken by likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – as the politics of the Reagan era have begun to decline. Parties tend to enjoy periods of dominance – not only electorally, but also shaping the terms of debate – for about forty years. Part of what drives this cycle is the mobilization of social movements that challenge the status quo and bring new ideas to the party out of power. The out-party, bolstered by these movements, eventually becomes the new dominant party. The way in which this takes place varies – for the New Deal Democrats, it was the labor movement and the Progressives, which had been mobilizing for years before FDR became president.

The conservative movement in the 1970s is an instructive comparison for what’s happening now. The eventual Reagan coalition included both economic conservatives and social conservatives. Similarly, what appears to be the likely ascendant liberal coalition includes activists primarily concerned with social questions surrounding race, police violence, and mass incarceration, and activists who have embraced the economic messages of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Despite some differences, the two parts of the conservative movement were able to simultaneously make credible claims to conservative ideals without getting in each other’s way too much. Hans cites a recent example of this with the opposition to the contraception mandate in the ACA. An older example of this would be the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, which prevented the use of federal Medicaid funds (that is, tax dollars) to pay for abortion procedures except in very specific circumstances. Although free-market ideology doesn’t appear to be immediately compatible with religiously-based social conservatism, the two have been successfully woven together to create a conservative orthodoxy.

It is less apparent, from the available evidence, that this will happen for the two major progressive movements that are ascendant right now. There are several reasons why this might be the case.

There are several features of the actual principles behind the movements that make them unlikely to form a unified, reinvigorated liberal ideology. The primary premise here is that populism on the left is about theories of power, not theories of governance. John Gerring’s book about parties and ideologies illustrates this nicely – he identifies the Democrats between 1892 and 1948 as “populist.” The defining ideological foil for this era is ordinary people vs. economic and political elite. In contrast, some of the other ideological eras are “order vs. anarchy,” “freedom vs. tyranny,” “intolerance vs. inclusion.” Those are ideas. Populism is less about ideas and more about two things: identifying groups on which to blame society’s problems (see Seth Masket’s post on Elizabeth Warren); and advocating for procedural changes that putatively give the people more of a voice. Left-wing populism identifies elites who are to blame for oppressing the masses. It also calls for majoritarian processes to alleviate the problem – changing campaign finance practices, more direct democracy, for example.

These theories of power and process are not obviously compatible with the BLM and related movements. Arguably, plebiscitary appeals about crime and punishment have contributed to the policies that created mass incarceration. Furthermore, economic populism identifies economic elites as the cause of the problem, stealing the American Dream from ordinary citizens. The intellectual foundations of the BLM movement implicate the majority and the American Dream. A movement that calls for thinking critically about institutions and values is not a movement that derives its strength from “the people.”

The point at which the two movements come together is in their deep critiques of existing power structures. But this is more likely to impede their chances of forming a cohesive ideology as social and economic conservatives have done. Scholars of American political development and institutional change note the importance of blending affirmation for old values with disruptive new ideas. FDR linked New Deal reforms with ideas about freedom and equality. Movement conservatives in the Reagan era spoke of preserving traditional family values and returning to the governing ideals of the Founding. Both Warren-Sanders style economic populism and racial justice movements require, instead, serious reexamination of governing principles. Economic populism challenges tenets of capitalism. Pursuing racial justice requires interrogating the country’s past. Both movements stress institutions as part of the problem. Embracing both forms of change at once would be difficult politically. Even if the polity is ready for change, many of the ideas from these two movements will be difficult to sell and implement as policy.

The two movements likely have overlapping supporters, and as I’ve noted above, the eventual Democratic nominee will need to respond to both sets of claims. Stranger coalitions have certainly existed in the Democratic Party. But this goes back to a fundamental question about asymmetries between the two parties. Economic and social conservatives were able to create a fairly unified governing ideology for more than thirty years. While they may be able to coalesce for political purposes, it seems unlikely that we’ll see the same from these two groups of liberal activists.

One group might eclipse the other, or neither one could end up being as important in the Democratic Party as I’ve predicted. Or they could end up both informing Democratic policy positions in a sort of patchwork way, but never really forming a cohesive ideological backbone that defines the party. It’s not that the two movements are natural enemies. After all, as Hans points out, both O’Malley and Sanders have vocally acknowledged the importance of the BLM protesters’ points. Nevertheless, the Netroots clash represented a real difference in values and ideas.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.