Last summer, Nathan Robinson reviewed Krystal Ball’s and Saagar Enjeti’s book, A Populist’s Guide to 2020. He criticized the authors for overstating the compatibility of Left and Right wing populism, stating that Right wing populism is more or less “just fascism,” and that the Left should confront supposed Right wing populists, rather than court them and seek common ground with them.
This sparked a debate on the Left which was recently revived when Jimmy Dore did a video on a Boogaloo Boys member named Magnus Panvidya, who, despite his alignment with the ostensibly far Right group, seemed to speak fondly of Antifa and Black Lives Matter, and lamented the corporate takeover of the U.S. government. Jimmy later interviewed Magnus on his show, a move criticized by subsequent guest Jerry White, a socialist organizer, who appeared on the program moments after Magnus’ segment ended.
Some on the Left agree with Robinson and White that seeking partnership with Right wing populists is a non-starter, while others feel Left and Right populists ought to engage each other and seek common ground on certain issues. Which side of the debate one finds themself on depends to a large extent on their perception of class struggle. Those who interpret it as a “top vs. bottom” conflict would be more inclined to partner with those of a different political ideology, feeling their common class interests transcend their political differences. To those for whom ideological divides supersede class positions, such a partnership is deemed both unfeasible and undesirable.
While Leftists’ trepidation on this question is understandable, those in the latter camp who dismiss and disparage the idea of constructive Left-Right populist dialogue are badly misguided in their assessment.
First, we as Leftists should establish that in order to grow our power and influence, we have to grow our numbers. There simply aren’t enough of us in the country right now for Left politics to be taken seriously in mainstream circles. Many Leftists like to delude themselves with the notion that our policy program is already sufficiently popular, and that we need only to galvanize this already existing public support and organize it into a potent political force. If this were true, then we could perhaps afford to simply dismiss Right wing populists as our opponents, because we’d have the numbers necessary to defeat them.
For better or worse, however, this is not the case. Despite strong polling numbers for social democratic programs like Medicare For All, the term “socialism” still carries with it a great deal of baggage, and is viewed negatively by a convincing majority of Americans. As much as we may wish this wasn’t the case, it is. And so we have significant work to do in growing our numbers before we can hope to have any real influence in national politics.
Once we accept that we aren’t yet popular enough, we must ask ourselves to whom we can appeal in order to boost our popularity. This is where questions of “top vs. bottom” and “Left vs. Right” become rather messy. Because the problem is this: the closer you get to the political center, the less of a “top vs. bottom” analysis you’ll find.
Centrist Democrats and Republicans both subscribe to a neoliberal economic philosophy, the very purpose of which is to erase class consciousness from political discourse. Therefore, there is no support for class struggle campaigns to be extracted from establishment-adjacent centrist liberals or conservatives.
Populist Right wingers might disagree with Leftists ideologically, but there is at least a common acknowledgment of the permanent power imbalance between elite institutions (both private and public) and ordinary people. Centrists deny the existence of such a thing, not because they don’t believe it, but because their political ideology explicitly demands that they deny it.
Leftists who still believe that centrist liberals are persuadable on this point are sorely mistaken. Liberals’ aversion to class politics is not an innocent misunderstanding that can be rectified through persuasion. It is part and parcel of their core belief system, as reflected in their political rhetoric, the media they consume, and the candidates they support. To them, class politics is classism - it’s a form of prejudice, which, like all other forms of prejudice, undermines the market-based meritocracy which they aspire to perfect.
A relevant microcosm of this key difference between Right wing populists and centrist liberals is the current debate over online censorship. Right wing populists and Leftists recognize the danger of the concentrated powers of discourse management, because Right wing populists and Leftists broadly acknowledge the perils of concentrated power. Centrist liberals, on the other hand, cheer on the censorship, offering the defense that the giant tech companies doing the censoring are privately owned and can therefore act as they wish, and that constitutional norms ought not apply. Nowhere in the liberals’ position is an analysis of any power imbalance whatsoever. This same ludicrous denial manifests itself in their embrace of neoliberal economics, making partnership with such people utterly impossible. They are staunchly and consciously committed to rejecting not just our arguments, but the very premises on which our arguments are based.
Apply this same dynamic to the ongoing struggle between labor and capital, which is a central, if not the central, concern of any movement with legitimate claims of being “Left” in nature. The populist Right winger sees the deterioration of American manufacturing jobs and prescribes as part of a solution draconian border enforcement to keep out competing workers. As Leftists, we believe that in a capitalist society, capital is power, and those with amassed capital, ie, concentrated power, will always wield it to benefit themselves at the expense of the many, and that immigrants are merely a scapegoat for the failures of capitalism itself. Is this a difficult idea to sell to to a populist Right winger? Yes, it probably is. But try making a similar anticapitalist argument to an Obama-worshipping #resistance liberal who insists that the solution to globalization is education, and that high wage blue collar jobs are never coming back, and that the plight of undereducated people is both inevitable and irreversible. You’ll very quickly realize that the former lift is in fact the lighter one. Because in that case, there at least exists the shared recognition that blue collar wages are too low, and that they can and must be raised. The liberal, once again, refuses to accept this very premise.
Of course, none of this is to say that compromises can be made with the Right on issues of civil rights, gender and racial equality, humane immigration policy, etc.. Obviously, overt and committed white supremacists are never to be reasoned with - but that’s not who we’re talking about. Saagar Enjeti is not a white supremacist. Neither is Magnus Panvidya, assuming he honestly represented his views on Jimmy Dore’s show. Engagement with people like them, I promise, is no less fruitful than with centrist liberals. So if you believe, as you should, that the Left must start growing its ranks by winning people over with convincing arguments, the populist Right is at least as fertile a ground as the liberal center, if not much more.