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The Three Factions of the American Left
Understanding what it means when we talk about "the left" in America
There is theory undergirding modern politics—political scientists still publish papers and argue over arcana online—but most of it, in the public domain, exists without a hard glossary, an ur-text that explains what’s going on. Activists, journalists, political operatives, and various politically-aware people debate topics with a shifting terminology that can gain different meanings in different contexts. A moderate, a socialist, a social democrat, a progressive, a leftist, or a liberal can connote something very different depending on what forum you’re on, where you’re headed, or who you are arguing with.
I am guilty of this as much as anyone. These terms, even in my own writing, can be elusive.
The Democratic and Republican Parties are fundamentally different in 2021 because one is factionalized and one is not. There are no competing blocs of the Republican Party any longer. All of it, as I warned repeatedly, now belongs to Donald Trump. Trump is the former president, but those who wish to survive in the party must pledge total fealty to him. The Republicans who voted to impeach him over January 6th will probably lose re-election or come close enough.
Meanwhile, a Republican Senate primary in Ohio will basically come down to who can grovel the hardest for Trump’s approval at his Florida golf club. Such is the state of affairs. There may be the vaguest of “wings” in the modern GOP—here is Marco Rubio making weak noise about the Republicans going populist, here is someone like Ben Sasse whining for a return to free-market fundamentals—but all of it must come back to the Republican’s self-appointed messiah, Donald J. Trump, who, as of now, can have the 2024 nomination if he wants it. This could all change one day. But that one day, at this rate, will be when Trump is dead.
The Democratic Party is nothing like this. There is a degree of personality worship in the base, with fans berating reporters who dare to question the wisdom of Joe Biden or Barack Obama, but no single man has such a hold on the popular imagination. Trump can rewrite reality for a significant chunk of the Republican electorate. Obama, as vaunted as he is, cannot. Within the Democratic Party, luckily, there is room for dissent and debate. Obama is not looming to destroy the career of anyone who criticizes the Affordable Care Act or the 2009 stimulus bill.
Anti-Trump Republicans don’t go very far, but anti-establishment socialists—or socialist-lite—politicians can do plenty. Just ask Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, or Jamaal Bowman. All have very large social media followings and manage to be, despite the controversy they may attract, Democrats in good standing. They vote with the party, support the speaker, and remain loyal caucus members. They are not causing the disruption the hard right did, back when the Republican Party still had factions. Remember the collision of establishment Republicans and the Tea Party? It’s all Trump now, from the country club to the hunting lodge.
When we speak of the “left” in America, ultimately, we speak of the wings of the Democratic Party. There are anti-electoralists among the socialists, but most members of the Democratic Socialists of America have embraced the Bernie Sanders program: elect socialists on the Democratic Party line and capture the party from within. In the first wave of socialist organizing, more than a century ago, this idea was rejected wholesale, as socialists sought office and won on third party lines. They rightfully perceived the Democrats and Republicans of their era as wholly captured by capitalistic interests. But sustaining power on third party lines in America is virtually impossible. DSA, learning from the mistakes of their forbearers, is not interested in forming a third party movement. They will last long because of that.
Within the three factions of the left is plenty of overlap. Left liberals and socialists share policy goals and upbringings. Moderates can embrace socialist ideas. Identity, at times, is prized greatly among all three. None of these terms, ultimately, amount to religion—you may disagree with them, or say one should be another. Through my own reporting, this is what I’ve broadly found. I hope, above all else, this exploration will be helpful.
Missing here will be a real discussion of organized labor. Far diminished from their midcentury peak, labor unions no longer control the fate of Democratic politics nationally. In New York and a few large Democratic states, they have tremendous clout, but this is not the case in most places. Many in labor, at this point, are probably most firmly situated in the moderate wing of the party, though the socialist left earnestly embraces labor power and liberal leftists, in white collar professions like media, are attempting to form unions of their own.
The Socialist Left
Today there is no writing about the socialist left in America without writing about DSA. If I were writing this essay before 2016, there would be no need to address the socialists at all. They were too small and inconsequential to be considered a faction of the party, with less than 10,000 members nationwide. That changed with Bernie Sanders’ first presidential campaign in 2016. Sanders, almost single-handedly, was responsible for the revival of socialism in America, calling himself a democratic socialist while arguing for a more robust version of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. This made Sanders, in actuality, more of a social democrat than a socialist, since he rarely talked about the public ownership of large companies and utilities and generally shied away from speaking about the full-scale dismantling of capitalism. Sanders was a presidential candidate, after all—he would only go so far.
Not all of the socialist left is in DSA, but plenty of it is. Today, DSA claims at least 85,000 members nationwide and will probably surpass 100,000 soon, matching the strength of the Communist Party USA in its Depression-era heyday. They’ve elected more than 100 members to office, including famous lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez, and now have at least six members in the New York State Legislature.
DSA does electoral and non-electoral work. Within the socialist left, there are inevitably factions, and a minority have argued the Democratic Party is not a vehicle for tangible change. These tend to be orthodox Marxists who once made up a sizable portion of the socialist left when it was far smaller. But they no longer call the shots—the socialist left wants to win elections, and do it on the Democratic Party line.
Among socialists, the theory of organization and change differs from that in the other left factions. Most socialists would like to see, in the long-term, the end of capitalism and the rise of a socialist state, with cooperative workplaces, strong unions, public ownership of industries, universal healthcare, and a right to comfortable housing. A socialist left wants workers in the private sector owning the means of production—corporations, conglomerates, and factories, with wealth radically redistributed downward. Socialists will differ on how these goals might be achieved, whether there should be a state takeover of industries or workers directly owning their own enterprises.
The socialist left is proudly anti-imperialist. A DSA member seeks the dismantling of the military-industrial complex and the retreat of American troops overseas. They are deeply critical of traditional American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and skeptical of international Cold War-era alliances venerated by the liberal left, including NATO. Many in DSA support the concept of open borders and international solidarity, though older leftists, Sanders included, are wary of lax immigration policy, citing fears that a flood of undocumented immigration could undercut American wages and strain the social safety net.
Even the most electorally-minded socialists do not view winning elections or building power in the Democratic Party as the only mechanism for achieving their aims. Mass protest—violent and non-violent alike—and strike actions are tools to be deployed. There is a faction of DSA that has a favorable view of gun ownership, unlike most on the liberal left.
Many in the socialist left would argue the working class should build power independent of the major two parties, while still, by necessity, working within them. DSA is focused on erecting its own electoral infrastructure: its own staff, campaign apps, and approach to organizing. This is why DSA is so insistent that their elected officials endorse each other, run as slates on a shared platform, and work together while in office. By running on a shared platform in the same organization, DSA hopes to keep their politicians accountable to a theoretical mass movement that can discipline them if need be. In New York, this is seen in the state legislature, where DSA members will issue joint statements, usually support the same bills, and meet together in their own caucus.
Identity is important to both the socialist left and the liberal left. For socialists, there is the constant invoking of the multiracial working class, and the need to foreground racial identity and gender identity with class. For socialists, these work in tandem: racism, sexism, and capitalism must be combated together. Most socialists, if not all, would argue racism is a function or a logical outcome of capitalism. DSA members have been deeply involved in various Black Lives Matter and anti-racist protests and general organizing. Defunding the police dramatically is a goal of DSA; the liberal left, these days, shares this rhetoric, with most mainstream liberal organizations, as of 2020, embracing the defund movement.
Since DSA is a large organization and American socialists are not always so doctrinaire, there is disagreement over how much identity must be emphasized in tandem, or at the expense of, class. Many in DSA embrace, for example, critical race theory. Others socialists reject it as performative, too often burdening the individual at the expense of the wealthy and powerful, and neglecting the critiques of capitalism and economic exploitation that are central to a socialistic understanding of America. The liberal left, as a rule, is more enthusiastic about critical race theory.
The socialist left, of course, shares characteristics with the liberal left. Each faction wants to see the American social welfare state grow. Both can support Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation, are skeptical or outright hostile to corporate power, and would like to see taxes raised aggressively on the wealthy. Each would agree income inequality is a major threat to the future of American democracy. Both reject a neoliberal consensus that is, in both the Republican and Democratic parties, fading rapidly into history, as both Trump and Biden have demonstrated they will spend trillions to rescue the American economy.
The two factions, at times, share a similar constituency. College-educated, wealthier Americans belong to DSA and the liberal left, and make up the vocal majorities of each faction. Both tend to be concentrated in cities, though DSA is organizing elsewhere. The young left—those under 35 in particular—have flocked to DSA, and Sanders dominated this age group in each of his presidential runs. Sanders’ coalition was young and diverse, with Latinos voting for him in large numbers in his second campaign. But it wasn’t large enough because older voters largely rejected Sanders: middle-aged African-Americans and whites especially. There is no winning a presidential primary without the backing of voters over the age of 50.
The socialist left and liberal left, ultimately, have different theories of change, different organizations they exist under and embrace, and demand different outcomes from their governments. Socialists, through DSA, have an organization committed to organizing in the most classic sense of the word—knocking on doors and talking to people about socialism. In New York City, where I live, DSA has the most active members of any group or umbrella organization beyond a few enormous labor unions. They canvass aggressively for their candidates and that’s why every DSA-endorsed campaign, since 2018 at least, has either won outright or been highly competitive.
But neither the socialist left nor the liberal left can claim to command the vast, unorganized working classes of America. In different ways, both factions remain alien to millions of people.
The Liberal Left
What made the 2020 Democratic primary for president so intriguing was how it distilled, for one of the first times ever, these three distinct factions of the Democratic Party. In 2016, Sanders battled Hillary Clinton, pitting a progressive and anti-establishment coalition against a candidate backed overwhelmingly by elected officials, labor unions, and various Democratic Party institutions. Sanders was conjuring the socialist left to life in real-time; his coalition was large and somewhat unwieldy, joining starry-eyed socialists with Democratic and independent voters who were skeptical of Clinton and party elites. Allegations of sexism, leveled by Clinton supporters, dogged the Sanders coalition throughout the campaign.
In 2020, Clinton was gone, and Democratic institutional players were deeply divided. For much of the primary, they doubted Biden could win at all, and many fled to Michael Bloomberg in late 2019 and early 2020, hoping the ultra-billionaire could stop Sanders dead in his tracks. In 2016, the Clinton-skeptical liberals aligned with Sanders, but in 2020, they had options to choose from. There was the technocratic Pete Buttigieg, the pugnacious Amy Klobuchar, and the darling of the liberal left, the legal trailblazer Elizabeth Warren.
Before Sanders ran for president in 2016, much of the broad progressive left—the term socialist could not yet be credibly invoked—wanted Warren, a Massachusetts senator and celebrated law professor, to challenge Clinton. She demurred, deciding such a run against a vaunted standard bearer like Clinton would not be in her best interests. Sanders took the shot when Warren passed and captured a certain amount of grassroots left energy that would never dissipate. Warren ran in 2020, briefly polled at the top of the field, but failed to gain traction when votes were counted. She did not win a single state and finished a distant third in her home state of Massachusetts, trailing Biden and Sanders.
Not all people who voted for Sanders called themselves socialists and not all those who backed Warren called themselves liberals, let alone invoked the term “liberal left,” which is confined mostly to political and academic circles. But there is something these vote totals can tell us. Sanders and Biden won far more votes and delegates than Warren, demonstrating the strength of the socialist and moderate brands in national politics at the expense of what Warren offered. Sanders’ campaign, a weaker version of his 2016 effort, leaned even harder into his democratic socialist label, and took up many demands of left activists that may have been alienating to 2016 voters who chose him for less ideological reasons.
In short, the socialist left beat the liberal left at the ballot box. Yet the liberal left is winning in many of the institutions that dominate America.
But what is it? There is no simple definition; liberal leftism is not as easily rendered as socialism. Liberal leftists seek an accommodation with capitalism that socialists will not. Warren herself had many elements of her platform that were socialistic, but she is, as she once said, a “capitalist to my bones.” Members of the liberal left would rather reform the order than dismantle it. If liberal leftists can be willing to criticize capitalism, they aren’t calling for socialism as its replacement.
On policy, the liberal left and socialist left seek many of the same near-term outcomes, like universal healthcare, though liberal leftists are not as enthusiastic about a single-payer model or a broad national takeover of healthcare. Liberal leftists are far more likely to praise the Affordable Care Act—the socialist left views it mostly as a corporate giveaway to private insurance companies—and seek means to bolster it, including adding a public option to compete with private insurers.
Liberal leftists, in the past, would be described as reform Democrats, committed to various goals of good government and the weakening of Democratic machine bosses in municipalities throughout America. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, was once a reform Democrat from Brooklyn; many Democrats of the Baby Boomer generation emerged from reform and New Left circles, where the youth of midcentury hoped to reimagine Democratic politics without a successful theory of change. The New Left petered out in the 1970s, and had no organization like today’s DSA to sustain its membership and discipline the politicians who came out of their movement. Reform Democrats did succeed in toppling political machines, but could not replicate the mass patronage and voter mobilization organs that kept the working class, particularly in urban neighborhoods, deeply engaged in politics. It’s not exactly coincidental that voter turnout plunged in cities like New York as Democratic machines withered and few institutions arose to replace them.
If the liberal left can be understood as more committed to amelioration than a socialistic reimagining of the economy—for many Americans, this is fine and dandy!—it can also be explained as a class cohort, a set of attitudes, and a certain commitment to identity above class. Like the socialist left, the liberal leftists tend to live in cities and congregate together. Many on the liberal left belong to what is known as the professional-managerial class (PMC). They are white collared, salaried workers with advanced degrees who regularly consume left-of-center media. They generally reproduce capitalist culture and capitalist class relations. They are regular readers of the New York Times and Washington Post, watchers of MSNBC and CNN. Members of the PMC can also belong to DSA, but they are often not formal members of any socialist organizations.
Media figures like Paul Krugman, David Remnick, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Rachel Maddow embody much of the left liberal consensus. Domestically, they favor a large, activist federal government, but put far more stock in American institutions than the socialist left, fixating, for example, on Trump’s ties to Russia and his ill manners as much as the policy changes he implemented as president. At times, the liberal left’s case against Trump could rest on aesthetics; a socialist is more likely to revile George W. Bush, who launched the Iraq War and implemented a mass surveillance state, than Trump. Bush, a friend of Michelle Obama and an amateur painter, is viewed in a much more favorable light than Trump by many in the PMC.
Liberal leftists, in turn, do not ground their politics in the traditional anti-imperialism of the socialist left. Liberal leftists are more likely to favor nations like Israel as conventional American allies, argue for the importance of maintaining American military bases abroad, and reflexively recoil at some of Trump’s isolationist instincts, such as his attempt to bring an abrupt end to the War in Afghanistan. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were such utter disasters that support for them, in both parties, is now scant, but liberal leftists, in the vein of misguided internationalism, largely backed both wars in the 2000s. Remnick, Goldberg, and many other prominent journalists of the left supported the Iraq War, lending crucial backing to a neoconservative venture.
But let’s return to who is really winning. If the socialist left has the ground troops, the liberal left has the institutions: the media, academia, and the arts. The Times employs one or two open socialists as op-ed columnists, while the Krugmans, Friedmans, Dowds, Brunis, and Brookses reign supreme. A sizable number of liberal leftists maintain hostility toward Sanders; some resent him for challenging Clinton, and later Warren, in the first place, while others are offended by how he foregrounds class in his politics. Charges of sexism or even racism—that one, in particular, is wildly off base—have been brought from the liberal left. It was not surprising, in this context, that the editorial board of the New York Times didn’t come remotely close to endorsing Sanders or Biden in the 2020 primary, opting for a co-endorsement of Warren and Klobuchar, two senators who came from the same wing of the party.
Other oppose Sanders, and much of the socialist left, on aesthetic grounds. The humorist Fran Lebowitz, a supporter of free higher education and universal healthcare, disparaged Sanders in an interview last year, despite sharing most of his policy aims. “I am a person who loathes Bernie Sanders,” Lebowitz, a Warren voter, said. “Medicare for All—which used to be called socialized medicine—is something that, of course, can be done. They have it all over Europe. Can it be done quickly in this country? No. But it’s an absurd idea that hospitals should be businesses.”
But why then reject Sanders? “I think the popularity of Bernie Sanders just has to do with his shouting, which people seem to mistake for some sort of intellectual energy. It drives me crazy. And most of the things he says should be free, I agree with him. Yes! Public colleges should be free.”
In a perceptive piece last summer, the conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that the explosion of the anti-police brutality protests and the sudden popularity of critical race theory—Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo were runaway best-sellers—was something of a defeat for Sanders and the socialist left, who had attempted to build large, multiracial coalitions around economic concerns like income inequality, the decline of unionization, and the exploitation of labor by capital.
“The demand for police reform at the heart of the current protests doesn’t fit this caricature,” Douthat wrote, referring to a socialist critique of liberalism that is “obsessed with cultural power at the expense of economic transformation, and that it puts the language of radicalism in the service of elitism.”
“But much of the action around it, the anti-racist reckoning unfolding in colleges, media organizations, corporations and public statuary, may seem more unifying than the Sanders revolution precisely because it isn’t as threatening to power.”
Indeed, we live in an odd moment when even a Civil Rights era conception of racial justice can seem retrograde to certain segments of the liberal left, particularly those who have become religious readers of Kendi, the star academic, and DiAngelo, the millionaire consultant who coined the term “white fragility.”
For the liberal left, critical race theory has become a totem: all interactions in American society are fraught with racial animus, white supremacy is like a virus, and racial identity is the alpha and omega, often the sole way to define an individual. An intentional way to root out racism in America, critical race theory is easily appropriated by the most nefarious and powerful corporations on Earth, like Nike and Amazon, which exploit the labor of poor people of color. Far easier to offer a few anti-bias trainings, designed by DiAngelo, and utter “Black Lives Matter” in public than recognize a union. Amazon, which threw up a BLM banner on its home page over the summer, is currently trying to smash a union organizing drive in Bessemer, Alabama, a city that is 72 percent Black. In the immortal words of DiAngelo last summer: “I avoid critiquing capitalism—I don’t need to give people reasons to dismiss me.”
Part of the challenge with the liberal left approach to combating racism and sexism is that it centers almost entirely on individual action. Enough implicit bias or anti-racist workshops can “cure” wrong-thinking individuals. Self-criticism and policing of speech are regarded as sufficient; corporations are all too happy to oblige, since retraining and even scolding their workforce can effectively shield management in workplace disputes. Anti-racist or race-neutral capitalism is often the end goal, rather than far-reaching policy and changes in law that can alleviate the worst effects of racial and gender discrimination.
It may not be fair to paint with too broad a brush here, since many left liberals, including Krugman, have offered trenchant and worthy critiques of capitalism. And there are a sizable number of DSA members who speak the language of critical race theory and celebrate the kind of cultural liberalism that is increasingly alienating to the large working class belonging to the third, and biggest, faction of the Democratic Party. Among the liberal left, there is also a small dissenting faction that has been critical of the Kendi and DiAngelo approach to speech and race relations. The New York Magazine pundit Jonathan Chait, who otherwise espouses conventional liberal left politics, has been outspoken in this regard.
The liberal left occupies a curious place in the firmament these days—it is dominant in the brain-trust of America, but it is does not command the organizing power of the socialists and cannot build the same mass coalitions as the moderates. Most newspapers and online media outlets, barring a few like the socialist Jacobin or the various leftist podcasts and YouTube shows, are liberal left in orientation.
But the liberal left does organize—sometimes in tandem with the socialists, other times against. New Yorkers know this especially well. It’s important to remember a subset of this coalition: the nonprofit and NGO left or, more plainly, the alphabet left.
The Alphabet Left
Permit me to coin a term here at Political Currents. There has never been a tidy way to describe the large, well-funded nonprofits and non-governmental organizations that do politics in America. Many of them are based out of large Democratic states like New York. Many are known by their acronyms—hence my use of the word alphabet. The kingpin, arguably, is the Working Families Party, founded in New York in 1998.
The WFP has many member nonprofits, including New York Communities for Change (NYCC), Citizens Action New York (CCNY), and the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE). For most of the 1990s, 2000s, and halfway into the 2010s, the WFP and its umbrella organizations were the left in New York. A visionary party founded at a nadir for left organizing in the state—Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York and another Republican, George Pataki, was governor—the WFP joined left-leaning activists in the state with large labor unions to push the Democratic Party leftward.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, a fiscal centrist who reviled the WFP, forced most of the labor unions out of the party, severely diminishing its ability to rally volunteers and employ the extensive get-out-the-vote operation that a formidable union can provide. Labor fleeing WFP did allow it to shed its moderate inclinations—labor leaders seek accommodations with powerful politicians, which forced WFP to endorse Cuomo and even back Republicans—and embrace the policies and lingo of the left to its fullest extent.
Yet the alphabet left is fundamentally different than the socialist left because it still relies on funding from politicians and Democratic donors to survive. The WFP, deprived of its labor support, had to turn to online fundraising for survival. Other nonprofits with campaign arms, like Make the Road New York, need to fundraise and receive government grants to maintain operations.
This sort of reality leads to different calculations. DSA decides which candidates to endorse and which politicians to oppose through a series of votes and debates that revolve, fundamentally, around two questions: is the candidate committed to our socialist values and do we have the capacity to endorse successfully? DSA is stingy with endorsements; WFP will endorse widely across the state and America, prioritizing some races while offering little more than a paper endorsement to others. The alphabet left can support radical policy, if it doesn’t invoke socialism, but it can only challenge so many hands that feed it. Cuomo stopped feeding a long time ago, and they have nothing to lose with going against him.
But other Democrats in “good standing”—conventional progressives or simply those who may control purse-strings down the road—are not confronted. The WFP rarely launched primary challenges of sitting State Assembly members, for example, and even in 2020, hesitated to challenge members who were closer to the powerful speaker, Carl Heastie. The DSA is mulling primary challenges of left-of-center state senators in 2022. The WFP probably won’t oblige.
What makes the alphabet left challenging to understand, for an outsider, is its constituency. DSA’s members are those who pay dues and show up at meetings; the meetings are public, and can be attended by anyone. Branches meet often. The nonprofits, including WFP, do not have public meetings, political clubs, or a clear explanation of how their endorsement process works. Cementing their status as the standard bearers of the new liberal left, the WFP endorsed Warren for president in a confusing, opaque process that enraged Sanders supporters and left more questions than answers. Warren’s failure to run competitively beyond Iowa did not dent WFP’s reputation, however—they are adept at drawing favorable media coverage in prestigious outlets. It doesn’t hurt, of course, the mainstream media is liberal left in its orientation, and will always take that brand of liberalism more seriously than the curiosity of socialism.
If a candidate wins a DSA endorsement, they can be guaranteed dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers. The alphabet left groups offer money, a paid canvass, and expertise, but then they aren’t so different than political consultants or political action committees. In the end, DSA can only claim to speak for the socialists in its organization, and aspire to one day represent a mass constituency.
The trouble with the alphabet left is they will often proclaim that they can speak for this mass constituency now—that they are designated, by some mysterious alchemy or friendly reporting in the Times, to speak for all immigrants, all Black people, all people of color. In the race for New York City mayor, neither the socialist left nor the alphabet left has a candidate. DSA already made a conscious decision to not endorse, citing capacity concerns.
But WFP and their allies would have a clear candidate, if only she could raise more money: Dianne Morales, who once earned almost $350,000 a year as a nonprofit executive.
The Moderate Left
David Shor, the provocative data scientist and Obama campaign veteran who has given some rather illuminating interviews about the state of American politics, likes to remind the public that the median American voter is 50 and watches a lot of television. “Democrats are too wonky, we’re eggheads, we talk too much about issues, we don’t communicate our values,” Shor said in one recent interview. “But the median voter doesn’t share our values. Our values are weird and alien. If they had our values they would be liberals.”
Shor is a self-described socialist who nevertheless comes down hard on his own. The liberal left, as seen above, is not spared much either. Since prestige media is dominated by liberals and socialists, through their rapid growth, have begun to capture the popular imagination, it’s easy to forget that a significant plurality of the Democratic Party—if not an outright majority—does not identify with either faction. They deem themselves, broadly, as “moderate” or nothing at all, with no use for DSA, the various alphabet left nonprofits, or the academic terminology favored by the liberal left.
Joe Biden dominated the 2020 Democratic primary. For my socialist friends, this can be hard to admit, and there are a wide variety of explanations, some more plausible than others, proffered for why Sanders came up so short. I believe cable TV’s hostility to a socialist frontrunner undercut Sanders and Democratic gatekeepers tried their hardest to defeat him. With Trump in the White House, media coverage was primarily focused on who could beat him, ignoring policy concerns, and Democratic voters cared more about driving Trump out of office than Medicare for All or unwinding forever wars. Sanders was portrayed as a risk and voters, in turn, saw him that way.
But that wasn’t the entire story. The field rapidly consolidated around Biden, but why couldn’t more voters choose Sanders and Warren anyway? Why was the Sanders campaign hoping to win the Democratic nomination in such a divided field, counting on a weak plurality driving him to the nomination? The DNC didn’t rig it against Sanders—Biden cleaned his clock on Super Tuesday, and that was that. Warren dropping out could have helped Sanders a lot, but Bloomberg was wasting money on Super Tuesday too, wounding Biden.
The electorate, even on the Democratic side, is not especially young or woke. A median voter of 50 was born at the beginning of the 1970s and a significant chunk of Democratic voters, especially the ones who come to the polls, are much older. They remember the Cold War and still might find the socialist label distasteful. They are not seeking disruption of the capitalistic order; they want to pay their mortgage in peace, and get their kids into decent public schools.
When mainstream media outlets write about moderates in office, they tend to focus on a particularly type: the culturally liberal, fiscally centrist politician who backs gun-control and immigration reform but balks at government-run healthcare or higher taxes. This sort of moderate is overrepresented in the media, both in who gets covered and who does the actual reporting. Both media and academia are increasingly filled with a young, urban, and very liberal precariat that has little in common with the millions of people who come to the polls.
Shor formulates a couple of arguments that make both the socialist and liberal left uneasy: two of their most cherished issues, defunding the police and weakening or entirely ending border restrictions, are deeply unpopular and should be rebranded, deemphasized, or abandoned altogether, he says. This can be debated, but what is less debatable is that the wide swath of moderate left voters—the racially diverse Democrats beyond 50, from African-Americans in South Carolina to Latinos in California to whites in Michigan and Wisconsin—do not like the idea of drastically reducing the budgets of police departments. Support for defund has cratered: a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 18 percent of voters backed the defund the police movement, while 58 percent opposed it. Just 28 percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of Democrats favored it at all.
In races across America last fall, many Republicans successfully demagogued on the issue, forcing most Democrats running for state houses and Congress to assert that they did not, in fact, want to defund the police. “But to Democrats concerned about how Republicans would distort the slogan to paint all of the party’s candidates as radical opponents of police officers as a whole ― one of the more trusted professions in the country ― the trend became a source of consternation,” reported HuffPost’s Daniel Marans. “Those concerns grew as police accountability protests gave way to riots in a number of American cities over the summer.”
“I’m not sure why, at any point, we allowed this conversation to be defunding the police and we didn’t just call it police reform,” Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist, told Marans. “I’m not even sure I’m 100 percent clear on what defunding the police means.”
This poses a particular challenge for the socialist left, since the goal of DSA is to build a mass organization that represents working class demands. There is no evidence that in poor and working class towns and cities, with shootings and murders on the rise, deeply slashing police department budgets is a popular demand. Reimagining and retraining police—and reducing racist police violence—is broadly supported, as is increasing funding for social services.
But the more radical demands, which have become de rigueur in socialist and liberal left circles, are not celebrated. Supporters of the defund movement will equate themselves to the abolitionists of the 19th century, but such a historical parallel does not quite fit here, since most Americans do not view police in the same light as those who owned and traded human bodies.
Similarly, much of the liberal left’s discourse around identity is confusing to most moderates. Kendi’s binary, that all ideas are either racist or anti-racist, or DiAngelo’s own Manichean proclamation that most human interaction boils down to whites in conflict against nonwhites would be confounding to the Tejanos of the Rio Grande Valley or the Dominican-Americans of Washington Heights or the Asian-Americans of Orange County. Much of the way the liberal and academic left discourses about race manages to elide or ignore altogether the diversity that a lot of the working class experiences daily, in which umbrella terms like BIPOC are never used. The jargon, which college-educated people in urban areas are fluid in, holds little meaning.
On immigration, alphabet left organizations are particularly divorced from how a significant number of Latino voters view the issue. In 2020, Latino voters dramatically swung toward Trump, as culturally and socially moderate voters retreated from Democratic candidates. Some of this was natural ideological polarization—conservative Latinos are not reflexively voting Democrat anymore—while a growing number seemed to resent that Democrats, and the nonprofit organizations that serve them, assume immigration is all they care about. The second Trump election clarified what certain journalists who have covered legal and undocumented immigrants have known for a long time: those who paid a lot of money and endured years of struggle to become citizens sometimes resent those who did not.
The moderate voter is not more fiscally conservative, in a classic sense, than even the socialist voter, but the moderate retreats from certain left signifiers. Unlike the socialist, the moderate is proudly pro-capitalist. Unlike the liberal, the moderate does not treat patriotism or religion as an embarrassing or ironic vestige of a lost world. Many moderates earnestly embrace nationalism and American iconography. They go to church on Sundays and, if they live in small towns, might organize their lives around religious institutions. Secularism is the default in both the socialist and liberal left; moderates are far more likely to turn to religion to give meaning to their lives.
There is good news for those who want Americans to embrace incredibly progressive or even socialistic economic policy: moderates are in full support, as long as it’s packaged appropriately. Democrats in Congress, with Biden’s approval, may be on the verge of creating a universal basic income for poor and middle class families with children. This idea is so popular Republicans don’t even know how to oppose it. Even Sanders, as chairman of the Senate’s Budget Committee, didn’t bother to call it socialism.
And the idea of the federal government spending trillions to prop up the economy, save public schools and municipal services, and send $1,400 checks to tens of millions of people is incredibly popular. Unlike 20 or 30 years ago, there is no moderate faction of the Democratic Party complaining about deficit spending or the growth of welfare. RIP the Atari Democrat. RIP neoliberalism.
There are larger trends that no one, in these factional discussions and debates, should forget. The Democratic Party is much more left-wing that it used to be. On economic matters, in the Trump era and beyond, even some elements of the Republican Party are beginning to shed their slavish devotion to austerity, as Trump won votes for a trillion dollar stimulus. The patrician Mitt Romney has even offered his own expansion of the welfare state—with some strings attached, of course.
Among the three factions, there is plenty of overlap, with ideas, arguments, and mores bleeding into each other. Moderates can support socialist healthcare policy. Liberal leftists and socialists can unite on questions of identity. Some Democrats wouldn’t describe themselves in these ways at all. And labels can be fluid: by the time the next open Democratic primary is waged in 2028, there may be new dynamics at play we can’t imagine now.
In 2008, Barack Obama managed to unite the liberal left and moderate left at a time when there was no such thing as a viable socialist movement in America. Obama defeated Clinton by joining African-American and white voters, both upper class liberals and working class moderates, in a formidable coalition that would win him two national elections. Factionalism, at its core, is not unhealthy to the democratic project and these debates should be allowed to simmer. The cult ideology that seized the GOP under Trump must be avoided at all costs. The future of the country depends on it.