The Circular Firing Squad Isn’t Amusing Anymore

News & Politics

Notwithstanding the addictive daily drama of leaks, tweets, and resistance, there are major issues that exist separate and apart from the 24-hour news cycle. These long-term problems are as salient in the digital moment as they were in the analog ’60s.

This coming October 9 will mark the 50th anniversary of Che Guevara’s murder. Yet the pathology underlying his famous quip that when the American left is asked to form a firing squad it gets into a circle is as relevant today as a Rachel Maddow response to Kellyanne Conway’s spin du jour.

Last year, speaking to a gathering of veterans of the Vietnam anti-war movement, Tom Hayden lamented, “We said we would not be like the old left, but we became like the old left. We fell into the same sectarian divisions.” This syndrome even cropped up at Hayden’s memorial service a few months ago in Los Angeles when speakers carped about the relative merits of the 1968 primary campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.

The DNC e-mails hacked by Russia in 2016 and curated by persons unknown focused overwhelmingly on tidbits that would make Bernie Sanders voters reluctant to vote for Clinton. If there weren’t such bitter tribal rivalries within the left (which long predate the election), the divide-and-conquer strategy could never have worked in the first place.

With excruciating predictability, mainstreamers blame young people for low turnout and for being seduced by the Libertarian or Green parties, as if finger-wagging at youth has ever been effective. Such lectures are like a rock band blaming the audience for not giving them an encore instead of improving the show. A certain number of low-information young voters struggling with college debt, stressed out by diminished job opportunities, and terrified of global warming were not motivated by charts showing statistical economic growth during the Obama years or by Tim Kaine’s harmonica playing.

It is equally absurd when some on the left refuse to admit that the United States and the world would be in a lot better shape today if imperfect Hillary Clinton had won.

Lefty infighting has been the norm for so long that some progressives have come to view it as a permanent, vaguely endearing fact of life. In the Trump era, such an attitude is not worldly—it is nihilistic. Non-Republicans—ranging from veterans of Occupy Wall Street to the centrist Democrats in the Clinton and Obama mold—have to decide if asserting their differences with robotic intensity is worth living under Republican control.

In order to have any chance of reversing the right-wing trends that began in the Reagan years, mainstream Democrats and progressives have to find ways to disagree without destroying the ability to accomplish their shared goals. Theories and tribalism must be subordinate to knowable or probable policy effects on the most vulnerable, on the 99 percent, and on the planet.

Democratic Party mainstreamers should stop claiming that they and they alone are pragmatic. (Or as a smug New York Times headline put it, “The Base Wants It All. The Party Wants to Win.”) That argument has long been highly debatable, but after 2016 it is delusional. They have controlled most of the candidate selection and most of the campaigns that have resulted in the weakest presence of Democrats in elective office since the age of silent movies.

At the same time, an intellectually honest left should stop insisting it has a monopoly on virtue or that both major parties are the same. This was not true in the 1960s, and—notwithstanding the frustrating limits of what the Clinton and Obama years accomplished in terms of progress on health care, the environment, the minimum wage, militarism, and civil liberties—millions of Americans had much better lives than would have been the case if Republicans has occupied the White House during the same time periods.

False choices are a luxury that must be jettisoned. It is neither rational nor helpful to ignore misogyny as a factor in the demonization of Hillary Clinton (and, for that matter, Nancy Pelosi). Sexism is still a thing. On the other hand, Obama and Clinton partisans need to acknowledge that the vast majority of Bernie Sanders voters were not motivated by his gender but by his articulation of positions that they felt were an inspiring departure from the constricted political playing field of recent years.

A few modest suggestions:

§ Generalizing about potential coalition partners is counterproductive. Although they are both “Democrats,” Maxine Waters is very different from Rahm Emanuel. Although they both are critics of mainstream Democratic leaders, Robert Reich and the Revolutionary Communist Party agree on almost nothing else.

§ Name-calling rarely dissipates darkness. For the rest of the Trump years, the left should retire the epithet “neoliberal.” It lumps too many people together unfairly and casts a counterproductive shadow on old-school Bobby Kennedy liberals who agree with progressives on the issues. Better to focus on specific policy arguments.

§ Mainstreamers should stop whining about “Bernie bros.” If they feel a compelling political or moral need to disagree with Bernie himself, it should be based on issues, not on Facebook posts by a tiny, unrepresentative handful of his supporters.

§ Hillary supporters should stop implying that Bernie cost her the election, and Bernie fans should refrain from alleging that Bernie was cheated out of the nomination.

It won’t be easy or particularly enjoyable to transcend tribalism. There were bonds formed in the anti-globalization movement and at protests like those at Standing Rock that are rooted in deep values. There is a justifiable pride among progressive public servants in having done the often-invisible work of making government agencies help more people, or among political advisers who prevailed against Republican demagoguery in elections. There are social, spiritual, and political differences that are intertwined with a hard-fought sense of self. But the alternative to dismantling the circular firing squad is to remain on repetitive, self-righteous tracks obsessed with what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” while the Trumps and Bannons and Kochs of the world laugh and plunder.

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