Why 'Alt-Left' Is a Dumb Slur, But Left-Wing Populism Is the Future

News & Politics

Could you be a member of a political conspiracy without even knowing it? I’ve found out in recent months that I’m a member of the “alt-left”. Commentators like Vanity Fair’s James Walcott try to break down the movement’s main currents: a handful of randos on Twitter, Glenn Greenwald, Susan Sarandon, Tulsi Gabbard and Cornel West.

Not bad company, if I do say so myself. For Walcott, what we all share is a soft spot for Russia, a kind of “Trumpian” rhetoric that attacks cultural liberalism and a shocking opposition to the “CIA/FBI/NSA alphabet-soup national-security matrix” he so trusts.

New York Magazine contributors are a bit more coherent in their definition. They point to Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon as “alt-left” standard bearers.

Analytically, the label doesn’t make sense. After all, the United States doesn’t have a labor-based party, much less a socialist one. In its stead, we’ve had the Democratic party, and mainstream Democrats have never had much interest associating themselves with the left.

Feisty internet reactionaries faced off against Beltway conservatives and traditionalists, dubbing themselves the “alt-right”, but there was no doubt that an actual “right” existed before them. On the left, though, who are we the “alt” to?

The “alt-left” label is simply meant as a slur, a way to associate America’s most consistent foes of oppression and exploitation with those who mean to shred whatever social and civil rights we still have. But it does connote a real style and temperament – a willingness to speak to an anti-establishment mood, to break with “politics as usual” in a far more fundamental way than Trump did.

Of course, in a time of rising authoritarianism, it’s understandable that liberal commentators would be wary of certain forms of anti-establishment populism. The collapse of an unjust order doesn’t mean that something better will take its place. But the political figures often brought up in conjunction with the “alt-left” are far from vengeful internet trolls.

Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon all have wide bases, built through campaigns around a social-democratic program in favor of worker protections, a social safety net, and more popular engagement in the decisions that affect ordinary people’s lives. That’s not extreme politics; it isn’t demagogic politics. It’s politics that can win over tens of millions who feel like politics hasn’t been working for them and might otherwise be won over to the populist right.

Nor is it blind to issues of identity: for good reason, struggling minority communities consistently support increased federal funding for social welfare and public education. Winning over voters takes organization and outreach, but it is a liberal fantasy to think that black and brown workers don’t care about that “white bro class stuff” like jobs, healthcare and housing.

This universal appeal isn’t something we should be ashamed of – it’s at the core of our politics. Workers across the developed world have been left behind by decades of corporate-led globalization. They’ve seen their wages stagnate and their work become more precarious. Agree or not with the prescription, socialists propose a clear remedy to this problem: a politics that doesn’t reject diversity and progress, but makes sure no one is left behind.

People are angry and the left can’t afford not to speak to that anger. We do so with a coherent strategy behind us – over a century of experience using class struggle to win concessions from elites otherwise content to write off huge swaths of the country. Yet for pundits content enough to live charmed lives amid the quiet suffering of millions, that would make us equivalent to those who would channel discontent into racism and xenophobia.

It’s clear that the liberal center is out of ideas. Forget about solutions – not once does Walcott mention the pressures that might have battered down ordinary people enough to make them stay at home in November, or (less likely) vote for Donald Trump. His complaints essentially boil down to the bad manners of the “alt-left”, our inability to recognize the grandeur of Meryl Streep, and failure to see Vladimir Putin’s Russia as the “true Evil Empire”. It’s the complaints of the chattering class, and a politics that doesn’t have anything tangible to offer ordinary people.

There’s a backlash to the system brewing that is going to be resolved one way or another. The old is dying and the new won’t be born from Golden Globes speeches. However inchoate and inadequate, the “alt-left”, as defined by the likes of New York Magazine and Vanity Fair, is just the left, and we look increasingly like modernity’s (and democracy’s) only hope.

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