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.