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When Is It Right to Criticize the Left?

A movement lacking introspection is doomed to fail

Jose Godoy

In the wake of Trump’s electoral victory, many leftists – myself included – took to playing a game of “I told you so.” This response is justifiable considering Hillary Clinton’s bungled campaign. Her loss to Trump put the general welfare of anyone who was not filthy rich in considerable jeopardy. At the same time, the aftermath of the election gave us a fleeting moment to gloat before we had to come to terms with the fact that Trump’s new address would indeed be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (when he was not at Mar-a-Lago, of course). We were going to litigate the primary until the cows came home so long as it meant showing centrists they had made grave, albeit easily preventable, mistakes. We needed to bury Clintonism deep if we planned to move beyond it. Absent from this moment, however, save a few exceptions, was a larger consideration of what work needed to be done on our side if we intended to ever win.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the election that broke everyone’s brain, perhaps we’re due for a little constructive criticism.

We Need to Re-litigate the Primaries… on Our Side

In response to Clinton’s loss, the people who comprise what we loosely classify as the “progressive left” in the United States made a lot of mistakes. These flaws within the progressive left had been momentarily set aside during the primaries in hopes of getting Sanders to the general election. But after November’s political bloodbath, what had always existed under the surface of the progressive left began to boil over. How did we get here?

The first and most glaring oversight was that many of us did not call as much attention as we normally would have to the racism, sexism, or xenophobia some of us experienced from fellow progressives. We wanted to stay focused. Wait until he wins, we thought, and then deal with it. It was as if we were all aboard a boat riddled with holes that we had patched by jamming our fingers into them in hopes we would still make it ashore without sinking. Eventually, the boat went down.

The hope for getting Sanders elected had kept a lot of us aboard the slowly sinking ship despite the problems we recognized yet still have not fully addressed. Though Sanders did more to include matters of race and gender equality as the primary went on, his message still lacked some coherence on both fronts. Of the many important economic issues he brought up, his colorblind approach to addressing them repeated the same problems of the New Deal, the benefits of which never quite equitably trickled down to people of color, whose opportunities were curtailed by racist union leaders and local political officials meant to administer the program. Sanders had placed confidence in a system many of us recognized had failed to truly work for all in the past. And to add insult to injury, some white Sanders supporters called him the second coming of FDR as supporters of color muttered quietly under their breath that Roosevelt oversaw the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent and supported the development and use of the atomic bombs later used to murder hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For some, Sanders’s strikingly tone-deaf comments on Palestinians following the election gave us the opportunity to break our silence. This turning point was made with a clear understanding that Sanders was the most progressive of all the candidates on Palestine. That was not saying much. Compared to Clinton’s chilling AIPAC speech that reduced all Palestinians to terrorists in waiting and the continued congressional support of Israel’s right-wing government, simply recognizing Palestinians as human beings made Sanders unique. But his baseless, knee-jerk rejection of BDS (the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement created by Palestinian activists that mirrors aspects of anti-apartheid tactics in South Africa), despite his own past of peaceful protest against segregation, poked holes in his image. Given, those to the left of Sanders had long criticized his approach to foreign policy, but many of their legitimate complaints were ignored.

Indeed this problem of dismissing left critique of Sanders demonstrated an ideological rigidity that paralleled that of centrists and Clinton die-hards. If progressives were frustrated by the cognitive dissonance Clinton’s and Obama’s supporters displayed when challenged on their views, why would they exhibit the same behavior toward leftist Green Party voters or members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL)? It seemed as if the only thing compelling progressives to disregard fact-based arguments made in good faith regarding Sanders was, ironically, the leftism of his critics.

We Need to Recognize the Real Enemy (Hint: It has nothing to do with identity)

This hypocrisy brings us to a larger problem in criticizing progressivism or any strains of the left: we are constantly under fire from the right. The right-wing levies very real attacks on poor people, people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ people and the groups that set out to represent them on a regular basis by way of severe austerity measures, war, increased policing, and active discrimination. It is no wonder that left-leaning parties and their supporters exist almost entirely on the defensive.

But this external threat from the right, and in large part from centrists as well, should not forever prohibit introspection, for, without it, we will never ever win. In order to move forward, in spite of the barrage of attacks, people must come to terms with several gaps in logic that remain in behaviors and debates on the progressive left. If we fail to address these flaws, we will remain increasingly more vulnerable to the policies and everyday actions of those to our right.

Take the controversy over “identity politics,” for example. Those on the progressive left who have made destroying identity politics their central preoccupation often possess an understanding of the term that stems from the Democrats’ distortion of issues affecting groups marginalized because of their gender, race, and sexuality. Democrats intentionally ignore the links between identity and class in order to abdicate their responsibilities toward their loyal voters from marginalized groups. Establishment Democrats and their supporters throughout the mainstream media seek not only to delink class and identity but also to paint them as adversarial categories. In pretending that identity-based oppression is isolated and has no connection to class whatsoever, they can continue to protect their own economic privilege. After all, a slight tax increase to fund social programs that would improve the lives of a large percentage of people of color might cut into these political thought leaders’ second vacation of the year or their ability to stock their kitchen with the latest celebrity-endorsed gadgets. The unfortunate result of their actions is a reductive dismissal of the significance of identity as a category. Those on the left who understandably reject the Democrats for this behavior sometimes reject an analysis of identity entirely as a result, and thus end up committing the same mistake of failing to acknowledge the way those in power compound identity-based discrimination and classism to deepen inequality for multiple groups of people.

In turn, some on the left use the same shoddy framing of identity as the working definition through which to define themselves. They see the misuse of identity and subsequently position themselves as diametrically opposed to it without recognizing the way many others, such as leftists of color, frequently analyze identity and class simultaneously. Those who use the term “identity politics” pejoratively in hopes of impeding the mere recognition of identity are committing an act of political laziness. Instead of addressing the flaws in centrist abuses of rhetoric regarding identity, these contrarians offer nothing more than an empty hand with which to slap down any potential solution. They don’t want to make the way we discuss identity more succinct; they simply want to disparage it so they do not have to do anything at all.

We caught a glimpse of this after November 8th, as some left-leaning thinkers, like Columbia professor Mark Lilla, forwarded the clumsy argument that Clinton had lost the presidency because of her focus on identity. While Clinton certainly centered race and gender – almost always in a manner that misrepresented the primary concerns of people marginalized on the basis of those very categories – this move is not what made her lose the election. The problem was that she barely touched on the very real economic disparities affecting Americans of all stripes. She could have won had she strengthened her message on identity and coupled it with an emphasis on economic recovery programs for the general population. But, she didn’t. And now, instead of forwarding the latter approach, some self-proclaimed progressives maintain that if we mention identity at all we are committing some impeachable offense on the left.

But real leftism is committed to equality for all. Leftists whose politics align with this goal pay careful attention to areas where programs and policy meant to provide resources to all miss certain communities. Though they may disagree on the best measures to accomplish equal resource distribution, they nevertheless recognize that ensuring a safety net for everyone may require additional steps in certain communities. Some on the left dismiss the significance of such targeted programs due to an inaccurate belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. Others outright refuse to recognize that some targeted legislation is required to ensure equal application of the law and distribution of resources.

The tendency of some progressives in the US to dismiss any attention to identity at all as “divisive” entirely miss that their actions work to push many groups away. In the history of leftist organizing in the United States, despite the presence and leadership of leftists of color within social movements, the presence of white leftists who cannot get beyond their own racism for a cause larger than themselves has been one factor in alienating some people of color from participating in movements existing well to the left of the Democratic Party despite the potential benefits to their communities. And while much ink has been spilled regarding the radicalization of white men toward the right, little attention had been paid to the prospect of certain groups being “radicalized” toward the center. If centrists provide a more accepting environment, at least on the surface, for people of color and women, among other groups, in a nation where identity tends to remain at the forefront of self-categorization, is it any surprise they continue to garner the majority of voters of color? This is a reality some Sanders supporters must come to terms with before 2020, for while Sanders is the most popular politician in the United States, there is no guarantee his popularity will translate into electoral victory if he does not make explicit appeals to both class and identity-based concerns.  

There is also no guarantee that those of us who consider ourselves leftists but have reservations about the direction some self-proclaimed members of the larger movement have gone will be bold enough to speak up when it matters. For example, the suggestions that the left should align with the “Alt-Right” to “take down the deep state” (leftists of color be damned), or that the left should prioritize a fight against the rights of immigrants in lieu of a fight against the business owners who exploit them, have certainly faced pushback, but that some leftists took these suggestions seriously is a problem in and of itself. With the prevalence of left-punching by a mainstream media apparatus more willing to embrace the right than the left, despite Trump and the Republicans’ harmful politics and an increasing number of terrorist acts committed by their adherents, speaking out against problems on the left feels ill-timed. But going forward, if we are seriously committed to change, we must be as equally willing to present constructive criticism as we are to hear it.

We Need to Keep Moving Forward

We must become better able to recognize arguments made in good faith and with the intention of strengthening the left. As the recent resolutions of the Democratic Socialists of America have shown, it is possible to engage criticism toward the betterment of the left without responding with stubborn resistance to change. The DSA listened to its critics and supporters alike and put together a promising set of stances based on their concerns that addressed issues of gender, sexuality, race, and immigration status, among other things.

Others on the left have put their ideology directly into practice. Some have chosen to run for office, such as Democratic Socialists Debbie Medina, a Brooklynite who ran for the New York State Senate, and Jabari Brisport, also from Brooklyn, who is currently campaigning for City Council. Others, like members of the Party for Socialist Liberation, or PSL, have continued their efforts to seamlessly bridge social and economic justice. The party’s ongoing community campaigns for immigrants’ rights and prison abolition showcase its commitment to centering the everyday concerns populations who deal with oppression on multiple levels.  

Ultimately, while it is certainly important for the left to confront neoliberalism and its proponents, we must not forget the importance of turning criticism into action. Neoliberalism has a tangible negative impact on multiple communities worldwide, and the left must never lose sight of the significance of countering and working toward eradicating its effects on the ground. Part of that process requires being flexible, listening, and engaging with others in a way that works toward positive change, not against it. Time will tell who is preparing to fight for the long haul and who is simply satisfied with “I told you so” as suffering continues unabated.

Written by Wendi Muse

Wendi Muse is a Writer for Progressive Army. Follow her on Twitter @MuseWendi.

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When Is It Right to Criticize the Left?