Media Analysis

Liberals bashing leftists is a big problem

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Michelle Goldberg addresses the divide between leftists and liberals inside the Democratic Party in a New York Times column urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to fight Trump and not the “squad,” the first-term leftwing congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whom Pelosi dismissed as lacking “any following. They’re four people”).

Goldberg says the left is annoying, but it needs to be “courted.”

“You can rail at the apathy and nihilistic demands for purity of people who hate Trump’s politics but didn’t vote for Clinton — I certainly have. But it is simply a fact that leftists, as well as the generally disaffected, need to be courted just as moderates do.”

She has a lot to say about the left’s manners, and little about its proposals.

“Leftist criticism can be uniquely grating to liberals, especially the kind that treats disagreements over strategy as differences of morality. And some of the newcomers’ rhetoric has been stupid and irresponsible. “

Liberal bashing of lefties (also called hippy punching) is something I see constantly, both online and more subtly at the New York Times, and it is a big problem because it gets in the way of people understanding some issues. Instead people start talking about how they see themselves as moderate or practical and the importance of the  issues often get lost under the posturing.

Goldberg is saying what some well-meaning liberals say. They want unity against Trump, but they also want to keep lefties on their leash. Several points:

1. People haven’t “courted” leftists in decades. They are told they have to choose the lesser evil and like it. They are told they have to support a warmonger like Hillary Clinton and they are nihilists if they object to a party that put her forward as a foreign policy genius. And it is the same on domestic policy. We have a horrible health care system and the planet faces a climate crisis and we are supposed to settle for policies that are at best inadequate and at worst catastrophic. Who are the nihilists here? By the way, I voted for Clinton and grudgingly accept lesser evil voting logic. But as the saying goes, don’t excrete liquid waste on me and tell me it is precipitating.

2. Given that this has been the case for decades, I don’t think you can make a distinction that Goldberg does between strategy and morality. This isn’t a matter of people simply recognizing that in politics you can’t have it all. The Democratic Party and many self-described liberals want leftist votes, but do not want leftist goals.

3. How many leftists have regular columns at the NYT? Ages ago, before the internet, Alexander Cockburn had a column at the Wall Street Journal, but he was clearly a token. People on what in America is called the far left are largely kept out of the discussion and used as punching bags even in Goldberg’s piece here, when Goldberg urges that they be treated with more respect. But she is saying as much for strategic reasons. She realizes Democrats might need their votes. Good, but from her NYT throne she can dismiss leftist critics. They irritate her, but she will not entertain the notion that they might have legitimate criticisms of the liberal approach.

4. One can distinguish between structural factors and the motives of individual liberals you might know in real life or even encounter online. There are obvious reasons why the mainstream press including the so called liberal NYT acts as a gatekeeper and mainly talks down to leftists on economic and foreign policy issues rather than letting them speak for themselves. They will, however, publish radical proposals on pronoun usage. Whatever one thinks about that , it is clearly not a proposal that threatens anything they care about.

On the individual level liberals can be all over the map, but many follow the lead of the mainstream press, thinking that this is where the best thinking on political issues can be found and they echo what they read. I’ve encountered several people who dismissed the importance of US complicity in crimes against humanity in East Timor decades back and in Yemen today right up until the point where it became a mainstream stance that it really mattered. (In both cases the full bipartisan shamefulness of the story never was fully made clear by the MSM). Once their mainstream sources told them the story mattered, they agreed. Educated liberals are far more susceptible to propaganda than they realize. We probably all are. But getting back to the educated liberals, believing in the reliability of the quality liberal press is a class and tribal marker. The only exception is that they might get mad at the press for being too critical of Democrats and playing false equivalency games with Republicans. Until Trump came along, they may have been partly right.

And not all liberals or self-proclaimed liberals are honestly misled. At least one of the Yemen dismissers I have encountered was motivated by devotion to Obama: if Obama chose to support the Saudi bombing because the Saudis were upset over the Iran nuclear deal then it was unfair to criticize him. The important thing here was to protect Obama’s honor. And other liberals like the system the way it is. They favor incrementalism not as a gradual path to radical change, but to avoid it. This is so obvious a point one should wonder why the lovers of incrementalism usually never bother to acknowledge it. A sincere liberal who favors leftist goals could accept incrementalism as a strategy while admitting its dangers, but when people make a fetish about their alleged pragmatism and their incrementalism philosophy without admitting those dangers exist, then something else is going on.

I haven’t mentioned the Palestinian issue once in this post. But it should be easy to see the role of incrementalism in that case. It has led to the death of the two state solution, the outcome that the incrementalists ostensibly favored.

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When I heard Goldman speak at Islamaphobe Bill Maher’s show, she came across as refined Hasbara, who tried hard to convince the audience that Israel was the victims of the Palestinians they were killing. Bill Maher seemed to agree with her.

A thought provoking article. I find it hard to place Ms. Goldberg in the context of the struggle between leftist idealism and Democratic Party cynicism (sometimes erroneously labelled pragmatism or incrementalism). Donald seems a bit conflicted too. But he’s picked a good subject upon which to bring up Michelle’s own struggle with the subject. Back in September 2008, in the immediate aftermath of Sarah Palin being named as John McCain’s running mate, I met dozens… Read more »

Another thing you haven’t mentioned, Donald, is the fact that all this tempest is strictly within the teapot of the Democratic Party (not even mentioned clearly in the title, because it would somehow be self-evident to you and the like-minded.) Inside, that is, the main administrative machine of US imperialism and war of aggression. How anyone can even speak of a “left” within that highest world center of war, aggression and theft is really a… Read more »

I didn’t, really — not having it in the title is the giveaway, saying that to you it’s self-evident.

Is this the answer to the substance?