The Bad Faith Attacks Between Left and Center-Left Must End

Nearly two years ago, in a piece that went semi-viral, I wrote about the need to end the the most self-destructive pathologies in the ongoing conflict between the progressive left and the center left. The core idea was as follows:

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….

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.

In the time that has passed since, it’s fair to say that an enormous amount of progress on both fronts has been since the bruising days of the 2016 Democratic primary. Yes, the same old issues flare up from time to time and some of the most rabid partisans continue to do their thing. But both sides have been making excellent strides toward understanding and accommodating one another.

Democratic socialist and progressive groups have been doing a much better job of of centering racial, gender and social justice in their arguments for more egalitarian economic policy, and of marginalizing their most aggressively tone-deaf supporters in this space. For their part, most center-left candidates are running on platforms that are economically well to the left of the Clinton 2016 campaign on issues from Medicare for All to free college to the filibuster, the judiciary and much besides.

There has also been a dramatic tactical shift leftward in the past few weeks by some of the most stalwart voices on the center left. Among these are Peter Daou:

In this environment of asymmetric polarization (i.e. Republicans, not Democrats, becoming more extreme), we need politicians who will take on the far right with moral clarity and determination. Which is why I supported Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during her primary campaign. Her willingness and ability to counter toxic GOP narratives is indispensable if Democrats hope to stop the rising tide of right-wing extremism. The half-measures, watered down policies, and empty platitudes that Democratic politicians have become accustomed to over the years won’t cut it in the face of encroaching fascism.

The majority of Americans agree with progressive positions, and Democratic leaders must finally learn to speak in clear, moral language. To speak of right and wrong. To have the courage of their convictions. To counter the GOP’s inhumane policies. To fight back with the determination and intensity required in this fraught moment.

Not a day goes by without a concern-trolling mainstream pundit admonishing Democrats not to move “too far left.” Oddly, these political “experts” never seem to care about the Republican Party’s lurch to the far right. The stale myth of a reasonable “center”—the false equivalence that seeking universal health care is as extreme as coddling neo-Nazis—has got to end.

Washington Monthly alum and Democratic Leadership Council stalwart Ed Kilgore:

I say all this unhappily, as a charter New Democrat who fell in love with Bill Clinton in the mid-1980s and with Barack Obama almost instantly. But it’s impossible to honestly deny that the time has come for a change of leadership in the Democratic Party, with the long-suppressed left finally getting a chance to show its political and substantive prescriptions are what the country wants and needs. In both 2016 and in the 2018 midterms, there was no electoral bonus for moderation, and all the enthusiasm came from the left, which is also generating the more interesting and inspiring policy ideas. So it’s the left’s turn to take the wheel.

And Bill Clinton economist Brad DeLong:

We were certainly wrong, 100 percent, on the politics.

Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. He’s all these things not because the technocrats in his administration think they’re the best possible policies, but because [White House adviser] David Axelrod and company say they poll well.

And [Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel and company say we’ve got to build bridges to the Republicans. We’ve got to let Republicans amend cap and trade up the wazoo, we’ve got to let Republicans amend the [Affordable Care Act] up the wazoo before it comes up to a final vote, we’ve got to tread very lightly with finance on Dodd-Frank, we have to do a very premature pivot away from recession recovery to “entitlement reform.”

All of these with the idea that you would then collect a broad political coalition behind what is, indeed, Mitt Romney’s health care policy and John McCain’s climate policy and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy.

And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years?

No, they [expletive] did not.

As a progressive myself, I find some of these apologias mildly frustrating: the bad faith from the Republican Party should have been apparent at least since Newt Gingrich, the lies leading up to the illegal invasion of Iraq should have been the breaking point for any sort of comity with the right, and the financial crisis and its aftermath should on its own have made clear that neoliberal (Delong’s term, not mine!) policy solutions only exacerbated existing problems. It shouldn’t have taken the Trump administration to come to this pass.

Still, credit where credit is due. These cannot have been easy essays and interviews for any of them, and I can only hope that I would be as generous and forthright if circumstances compelled me to make a similar ideological shift.

It is in this light that we should view today’s kerfuffle between the Sanders camp and the Center for American Progress / ThinkProgress camps.

Of all the things to attack Bernie Sanders on, his being a millionaire is one of the silliest. First, the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was immensely wealthy didn’t prevent him from implementing radically leftist economic policy for his time, earning him the moniker “traitor to his class.” Second, Sanders is still toward the very bottom of wealth among Senators. Third, it’s the top tenth of one percent who are the key drivers of inequality, not people with a million dollars in assets–which is why I usually use the phrase “obscenely wealthy” to describe the jet set. A million dollars goes a long way in some places, but not so far in others. Finally, there is a big difference between gaining money from writing a popular book, and strip mining money from workers and customers through rent seeking and typical corporate financial practices. This isn’t special pleading on my part, either: I’ve said before that a 70% marginal rate on top earners is actually too regressive because it would hit rich people who legitimately earn their millions, like entertainers and inventors, while leaving mostly untouched the true economic predators in the corporate and financial sectors who make mostly passive investment income.

What Sanders did wrong wasn’t being a millionaire or being a hypocrite. What he did wrong was being so worried about the counterattack that it took him years to release his tax returns. So when Think Progress, a media outlet affiliated with the Center for American Progress, attacked Sanders for being a millionaire (sigh), both they and the Center for American Progress had to know what kind of forceful pushback would result.

This sort of thing is entirely avoidable. Most of the left and the center-left is engaging in the primary race in a more aboveboard and respectful fashion than either side did in 2016. Where there are disagreements on policy, those should be hashed out and the best argument should win. When a candidate says something bad and tone deaf, they should be held accountable for it and forced to revise their statement or suffer the consequences. Warren has been particularly tremendous on policy. Sanders has made some serious gaffes in the last month. So have other candidates across the field. The left and center-left will continue to have valid and important disagreements at the local, state and national level for years to come–disagreements should be argued and hashed out in public. All of this is fair game.

But the bad faith attacks should end if Democrats want to avoid a repeat of the acrimony that helped bring out the catastrophe of 2016.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

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.