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.
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.
The alliance between the liberal establishment and big tech has so been long entrenched that it’s difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins. It became obvious in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory that this amorphous yet coordinated power structure would stop at nothing to ensure that such a thing could not and would not ever happen again.
The perpetuation of Russiagate, the burying of independent media, and the dragging of Mark Zuckerberg into Congress to try and browbeat him into even further submission, illustrate this strategy. The political party and its media allies, which have spent the past five years parroting each others’ talking points about what a grave threat Trump poses to our constitutional norms, were simultaneously and systematically undermining the First Amendment using every tool at their disposal, from media propaganda, to cultural signaling, to congressional hearings about the need for outlets like Facebook and Twitter to crack down harder upon certain content they deem unfit for dissemination.
Given all of this, it makes sense to assume that the incoming Biden administration would kick these efforts into overdrive in an attempt to revert the public discourse back to its pre-internet era, where only well-established and well-funded outlets could widely propagate news and opinion. However, the events of January 6th have accelerated this mission into, if you will, “warp speed.”
In the days following the riot, we’ve already seen radical action taken by these aforementioned tech platforms against those they deem suspicious and threatening. This of course includes the president himself, who is now permanently suspended from both Facebook and Twitter.
Brandon Straka, architect of the “Walk Away” campaign aimed at convincing people to leave the Democratic Party, tweeted on Friday that Facebook had erased all of his content, including hundreds of thousands of his followers’ testimonial videos, and banned him and his entire team from their platform. Ron Paul was temporarily blocked by Facebook from managing his own page. According to Paul, Facebook went only as far as to notify him of his page’s “repeatedly going against [their] community standards,” offering no further explanation of why disciplinary action was taken against him.
Additionally, employers are now beginning to terminate their employees upon discovery of their mere presence at the rally, whether or not they participated in any of the day’s violent activity. All of the thousands of protestors who showed up are being cavalierly branded as seditionists, insurrectionists, traitors, and domestic terrorists by the mainstream media, as well as by President-Elect Biden. Neither Biden himself nor establishment media outlets seem interested in distinguishing the intentions of those who simply gathered with signs and flags from those who violently stormed the Capitol Building.
The response from the political and media establishment to the Capitol Hill riot has been a show of force intended to communicate that, moving forward, they will be much quicker to crack down upon unsanctioned speech and outside-the-mainstream opinion. The incoming president, giants of social media and big tech, and traditional media behemoths, have all been on this same page.
The goal of all of this goes beyond thwarting further chaotic and violent riots like those of January 6th. It is to control the dissemination of thoughts and ideas so that no political movement that they fear might usher in the set of circumstances that led to the event ever takes shape in the first place. On January 20th, after four tumultuous years of Trump, we will inaugurate the epitome of a lifelong Washington institutionalist in Joe Biden. Along with Biden’s presidency will come an ongoing effort by the establishment to rebuild the Bastille such that it’s never breached again, from the right or the left, by any political figure or movement that comes without their pre-approval.
Rather than being alarmed about this, liberals seem to be cheering on this partnership between the political establishment and major media outlets and tech companies, pushing back on First Amendment concerns by repeating the “private companies” defense.
Of course, the retort that Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Google, are private businesses with no obligation to operate within a constitutional framework, is nothing more than a restatement of the very problem that needs solving. After all, the entire purpose of a constitution is to establish a permanent set of governing principles that serves as a check upon the government, and, in our case, to prevent, among other things, violations of individual rights. If private companies grow to the point where they have more direct control over the dissemination of speech than the government itself, then they must either be broken up so that their power is reduced (the anti-trust approach), or regulated so that their power cannot be wielded in violation of people’s free speech rights (broadly speaking, the “public utility” approach).
To argue against either of those proposals is to argue for oligarchy, which is what most liberals, and even some self-described Leftists, are doing right now. In an oligarchy, a small group exercises power over the entire country. In an oligarchy, it doesn’t matter whether that small group is comprised of business elites, public officials, or both. In an oligarchy, power is concentrated in the hands of the few, and is unaccountable to the wants and needs of the many. Whether that power is wielded by private companies or the government itself is neither here nor there.
Therefore, the “private company” defense is a red herring. It’s irrelevant that giant tech companies are privately owned, because anti-trust law and public utility regulations exist to protect the masses against exploitation by any institution of outsized power, especially private companies. That liberals would cheer this power grab is as disgraceful as it is predictable.
We recently hosted a writer, who chose to remain anonymous, for episode 103 of the Due Dissidence podcast in which we discuss these issues in further detail. To hear our full conversation, click the player below:
I know what you’re thinking: whaaaaaaaaaat!? But hear me out. The progressive case for voting Biden was best articulated by Noam Chomsky, and boiled down to this: as an activist, whether you like or don’t like a candidate or party doesn’t really enter into it. Your personal feelings must always be subordinated to your larger goals, and you should always vote based on which candidate is going to be the best vehicle for achieving your policy objectives. By that standard, I think there’s a good case to be made for progressives aligning themselves with the emerging economic populist wing of the GOP, and fighting its evangelical wing on cultural issues, rather than remaining within the Democratic Party and fighting its establishment on literally everything. Here’s why:
The Democratic Brand Is Toxic
Between its cultural signaling and its constant failure to delver for its constituents, the party has lost the good will of essentially everyone who doesn’t live on the coasts, and even on the coasts, is only really popular in urban areas. In my home state of New York, electoral maps show a bubble of New York City blue floating in an ocean of red, and the same goes for the entire Northeast, from Boston to Providence to Hartford. Slapping the D on your campaign materials isn’t an asset in most places, it’s a liability.
Republicans Win and It’s Only Going To Get Worse
Even in the face of a President who mostly seemed like he had just stepped out of a savage political farce about American politics that might have been written in the years before it actually happened, Joe Biden barely squeaked by. It took a once in a century pandemic and an unfathomably incompetent response from the administration to secure the Presidency for Democrats. But you can’t always count on an apocalypse. Even with an ongoing sci-fi dystopia scenario playing out in real time, and even with record turn-out, which is theoretically supposed to favor Democrats, the party managed to lose Governorships, state legislatures, house seats, and some very winnable Senate races. Because of those losses, next year’s post-census redistricting will be done primarily by Republicans. By the time they’ve gotten through gerrymandering the country, there are going to be about 6 Democrats left in the House. The next shot at Congress will come in 2032, after the next census. That sound like a star you want to hitch your wagon to? Is that a party that’s going to serve as the best vehicle for pushing your agenda?
The GOP Lets Its Voters Decide: A Tale of Two Insurgents
This is a subtle point, but a very important one, because it has an enormous impact on candidate selection and the degree to which GOP voters are able to influence the party’s legislative agenda. In 2016, both parties were rocked by the unexpected rise of unlikely outsider candidates running on an economic populist agenda that was completely at odds with the ideology of their leadership. In both cases, the media complexes that support those parties respectively tried to delegitimize the insurgents, and the parties ’ leading figures did everything they could to instruct their voters not to support them. But in only one case did the party work behind the scenes to rig the primary process against one candidate. And it wasn’t the GOP. We know from Wikileaks and Donna Brazile, that the DNC conspired with the Clinton campaign to sink Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. This was in spite of the fact that there was no reason to believe that he would lose in a general election, based on the polling. In fact, he generally outperformed Clinton in a theoretical match-up with Trump. The GOP, on the other hand, had every reason to believe that Trump would be defeated in a landslide, no matter who emerged the victor on the Democratic side. And yet, even in the face of not only a hostile takeover of their party, but in the face of an almost certain humiliating defeat, the GOP didn’t conspire against its own voters to secure a desired outcome. Which means that if you’re supporting a candidate in a GOP primary who has the most volunteers and grass roots donations in history, and that candidate goes on to win the first 3 primary states, chances are they’re going to be the nominee. On the other hand, as we saw again in 2020 with the Obama-orchestrated Monday night massacre, the Democratic Party will stop at nothing to prevent anyone who threatens to derail the revolving door gravy train from gaining any real power within their party.
Our Working Class Base Is In the GOP
It’s hard to run on economic populism inside a party dominated by upscale suburban liberals. Sure, they’ll vaguely nod their heads and agree in the abstract on principles like M4A, and labor rights, but it isn’t something they really give two shits about. And let’s face it: the idea of working-class solidarity scares them. Just like in some way the continued paranoia about Russia is based in ancient fears of the Mongol hordes swooping in from the steppe, the petit-bourgeois contempt for economic populism is based in their ancient class fear of being dragged from their homes by the impoverished masses and sent off to a political re-education camp. That’s a big part of why they’ve embraced the new religion of “critical race theory.” People who are busy hating each other because of their skin color, can’t unite. It also helps to deflect from their class privilege when they spend all their political energy superficially denouncing their own race privilege. Now, you might be saying that even if the working class is in the GOP, those voters represent a subset of the working class that’s hostile to social welfare programs. But if you’ve ever watched Bernie Sanders’ Fox News town hall, in which the audience applauds repeatedly for his entire agenda even with the hosts attempting to re-direct them back to the “socialist” boogeyman, you know that’s bs. It wouldn’t take much to win these people over. In fact, Trump already proved that by running to Clinton’s left on health care, trade, and war. He didn’t mean any of it, but that doesn’t really matter in terms of evaluating the potency of an economic populist message among rank-and-file Republicans. Now imagine what someone who walked the walk instead of just talking the talk could do.
GOP Voters Don’t Take Marching Orders
If they did, Jeb Bush would have been the 2016 nominee. They didn’t really give a fuck what Mitt Romney, or Rush Limbaugh, or anyone over at Fox had to say about it. They wanted Trump and they picked him, party establishment be damned. On the contrary, in 2020, Democratic voters rejected the candidate that polling showed they most trusted on every issue of importance to them, in favor of someone who started his campaign waxing rhapsodic over his past collaborations with avowed segregationists. And they did this, even as the country was exploding in the worst series of race riots since the 60’s. Why? Because their leaders and their media told them to. There was literally no other reason to support a man that got crushed in the first 3 states, and who polling showed they didn’t even particularly like. Even setting aside every other point in this article, this one is impossible to get around. You can never reform a party whose own voters are so spineless that all it takes is a thumbs down from Barrack Obama to persuade them to vote against the candidate they trust, in favor of one that they’ve been told can win. They were told that in 2016 too, mostly by the same people, but that doesn’t seem to have made an impression. Given the tightness of the margins, we can safely say that without corona, Biden would have been destroyed in 2020, and we had no idea how bad corona was going to be on Super Tuesday. With the GOP base, you have a chance to make your case, and if you make it successfully, you can actually win. With the Democrats, you’ll never win. Because even setting the leadership aside, their base is trash.
The story is much the same with Latinos, who it turns out not only aren’t all that into white liberals telling them what to call themselves under the assumption that their own language is inherently sexist (if you can find a better example of the “white savior” mentality in modern times, please let me know what it is), but tend to be to the right of white Democrats on immigration. It’s almost like people are multi-faceted and not simply defined by their race. Who knew? Definitely not the Democrats, apparently. If these trends continue (and there’s no reason to believe they won’t after listening to Biden’s recent Trumpesque exchange with black civil rights leaders), we’re looking at a looming GOP majority as far as the eye can see.
When the Democrats Are In Power, They Do As Much If Not More Damage To Their Base Than the GOP
Why is it that the party that supposedly cares the most about POC and the working class often does the most real structural, legislative damage to those communities while in office? Partly it’s because they believe those voters have nowhere else to go, and as a result those aren’t the voters they care about. The GOP, on the other hand, knows that because of their built-in advantage with whites, all they have to do is make a few percentage points gain with POC to beat the Democrats across the map. As a result, Democrats are the ones most likely to gut welfare and pass unpopular trade deals like NAFTA, while the GOP are more likely to do sentencing reform. It’s about politics, not ethics, but the end result is the same. Also, when the GOP wants to pass legislation that’s obviously hostile to workers and/or POC, the Dems will fight it for political reasons and the media will cover the subject more critically. Add to that the stigma the GOP carries as the party of white people, and it’s hard for them to pass overtly racist legislation without scrutiny. If you want to make it legal to put shock collars on workers, or carcinogens in black neighborhoods, you need to call it the Worker Safety and Water Enhancement Act, and get a Democratic President to slow jam it on Jimmy Fallon, a la Obama and the TPP. The white working class figured this out a long time ago, and that’s a big part of why they migrated to the GOP. With minority communities now following suit, who’s going to be left to vote for Democrats?
Freedom of Speech
As an artist and a politics blogger, this is a big one for me. We’ve seen the Democrats take on a lot of characteristics and opinions that have been historically associated with the right-wing over the last four years: Cold-war style Russophobia with all the attendant McCarthyite red-baiting of political opponents, even (perhaps especially) those on the left; unquestioning lionization of the intelligence services, accompanied by a blind acceptance of any and all claims they might make; a censorious holier-than-thou moral hysteria worthy of the Victorian era. It’s unsurprising then that people who have begun to think in a way that we usually associate with 1950’s wing-nuts, have come up with similar solutions to the perceived problem of Russian influence and moral turpitude among the citizenry: book banning, de-platforming, and blacklists. The bedrock American principal that tolerating speech isn’t the same thing as supporting it, has been abandoned by a modern left which seems to think that leaving it to tech oligarchs to decide which speech is and isn’t fit for mass consumption is a grand idea that will never come back to bite them in the ass. These are the same people who never anticipated that Democratic support for the Patriot Act would cause any particular problems, right up until the federal forces created under its provisions went all Pinochet on Portland’s protestors, throwing them into unmarked vans without charges or explanation. And even afterwards, they never made the connection: as usual, it was all about Trump.
This is not to say that Republicans are great defenders of freedom: the Patriot Act was essentially a wish list for the expansion of executive power that had been sitting at the bottom of a drawer in Dick Cheney’s house since the Nixon administration. And I have no doubt that if tech CEO’s were mostly Republicans, it would be the GOP arguing for tighter restrictions, and Dems arguing for an unrestricted internet. But as things stand, it isn’t the GOP putting pressure on publishers to withdraw books, demanding that scientific papers not be published until they’ve been examined for racial insensitivity by a committee, or cheering when Twitter and Facebook block a news story that subsequently turns out to have been true. The Democrats are the ones doing all of those things and that makes them the greatest threat to freedom of expression and open inquiry in the country at this particular moment in history. For that reason alone, whatever we might think of the GOP, we need to regard the Democratic Party as an existential threat to a progressive movement that does most of its organizing online.
This Wouldn’t Be the First Time That the Parties Switched Ideological Places
While GOP policies to fund railroad construction and industry had benefitted banks and businesses concentrated in the Northeast, they hadn’t provided similar support to the farmers who had settled in the West under the Homestead Act. With the admission of Western States to the union, this created a new voting block of impoverished rural voters with their own interest in big government/social justice programs. The Dems were the first to fully appeal to this block by nominating populist William Jennings Bryan, in 1896. For awhile the GOP competed with Dems for these voters, with Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt backing anti-trust legislation. But in both rural and urban areas, the working class and working poor continued to drift towards the Democratic Party, and as a result, its policies increasingly favored that group. By 1936 the GOP gave up on winning them over, by opposing FDR and the New Deal. So, we got where we are now because the parties switched their governing philosophies in response to a shift in their respective bases. With the working class now having fled back to the GOP, and upscale suburban whites having taken over the Democrats, the time is ripe for a switch back.
You might be asking now; are you really fucking serious about this? Honestly, I started this article with a tongue in my cheek, and by the time I finished it, I realized how cogent an argument you can make for the idea. At the very least I can say, I truly think your chances of reforming the GOP into a party that’s less culturally conservative than it is now, while being populist on economic issues, is better than your chances of turning the Democrats towards meaningful reform. I also believe that even if you managed it, it would be a Pyrrhic victory, because the Democratic brand is so toxic, and the structural disadvantages so severe, that you’d essentially be working very hard to reform a party that can’t win elections. So, what’s the point? I think a candidate like Paula Jean Swearengin, running on the same exact platform, would do a lot better running as a Republican in West Virginia. As a Democrat, she has no chance.
I mentioned in a previous article that I thought a candidate campaigning on an anti-woke, economic populist message in 2024, with Kamala Harris as the presumed opponent, would end up taking at least one third of former Sanders voters and win in a landslide. At that point what I’m suggesting here be done preemptively, will become a fait accompli. After 2024 the GOP may very well cement its hold on the working class, by continuing to make inroads with the non-white portions of it. It might be best to get ahead of that reality, if we want a seat at the table down the line. The only other viable option is to replace the Democrats with a major new party, as the Movement for A People’s Party is attempting to do, but is that more realistic than a hostile take-over the GOP? I don’t think so. If the people won’t come to you, you have to go to them. Our people aren’t in the Democratic Party any longer, and it’s only going to get worse.
For more on this topic, listen to episode 100 of the Due Dissidence podcast bu clicking the player below: