Politics for most people is a means to an end. If we fail to highlight solidarity and shared material interests over ideological purity or identity, we will fail to transform the abstract support of disaffected voters into actual engagement.
In January Joe Rogan endorsed Bernie Sanders on his podcast, which is downloaded millions of times a week. He admitted this during a conversation with Bari Weiss, whose inclusion on the show should signal that Rogan, unlike most other media talking heads, seems truly dedicated to the free and good faith exchange of ideas.
A few people he didn’t allow on his show, despite their requests, were Liz Warren, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg: all candidates who were trying to position themselves as moderates who can cozy up to the establishment and win over conservative elements of the population. And yet, when he said that he would support Bernie, it was precisely the supporters of these candidates, as well as other centrist Democratic and Third Way types, who began a swift campaign of concern trolling about the need to distance ourselves from figures like Rogan, who allow a platform for right wing ideas.
This is absurd for a number of reasons, many of which are too stupid to deserve our time. But we can at least try to stick to the political logic at work here, which is as hypocritical as it is cynical.
Reaching Across the Aisle
“Reaching across the aisle” and winning over ostensibly “conservative” Americans has long been a fetish of the right wing of the Democratic party and their various corporate media mouthpieces. No one questions whether this electoral logic is their true intention, rather than a cover for their pro-corporate, anti-worker agenda, providing it with a sheen of “democracy.” We need to beat down workers to win votes. The people demand it.
It is also the establishment candidates who have openly taken money and endorsements from war criminals (Kissinger for Hillary in 2016), big pharma, the banking industry, known rapists and pedophiles like Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, and an assortment of various other criminal and antisocial characters. Hillary Clinton recently defended taking money from Harvey Weinstein before she went on a tirade about how nobody likes Bernie Sanders. Joe Rogan, though, must be worse than these people. Even Elizabeth Warren finished off her candidacy by creating a Super PAC funded almost in full by a single, $14 million dollar donation, despite the fact that “anti-super PAC rhetoric was a major feature of her campaign.” The hypocrisy here is obvious, but hypocrisy is so standard today that pointing it out like good little school boys and girls is no longer convincing to most people. They already know that politicians are largely corrupt, untrustworthy people.
Chuck Schumer solidified this strategy in his famous words describing Hillary’s campaign in 2016: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” That is, it is precisely not the disaffected working class they have in mind, but wealthy suburban Republicans or “swing voters” who might feel queasy about the cultural rot of the GOP. This strategy obviously failed miserably, but you wouldn’t know it, because it is exactly what they are trying this time around.
Perhaps we should take these pronouncements with a grain of salt. It is hard to tell whether strategists actually believe the feasibility of attracting so-called “never Trump” Republicans, or whether there are enough of them to make a difference. Perhaps they are simply sending signals to their true constituency: the capitalist class itself.
Schumer and others like him are still working within the New Democrat paradigm solidified by Bill Clinton. This paradigm follows a sort of playground bully logic. Basically, if you don’t want to appear to be a bully but also don’t want to get beaten up by a bully, one strategy is to ingratiate yourself to stronger forces by battering someone weaker even than you. You step in and do the bully’s work for them. The bully here being the capitalist class: finance, tech, insurance, big pharma, etc.
Clinton’s goal was to make the Democratic party a better, more efficient executor of the demands of the capitalist class than the Republicans. To demonstrate this he unleashed policy after policy that further beat the working class into economic desperation. Welfare reform, NAFTA, crime bills that spiked mass incarceration (a signature effort of Joe Biden), multiple bills that deregulated the banking industry, social security cuts (and privatization, if not for Monica Lewinsky). All these policies had one thing in common: they signaled that the Democrats were more than willing to unleash discipline and pain on the working class while signaling an open season for the very rich.
As Thomas Frank put it, “Republicans could denounce big government all they wanted, but it took a Democrat to declare that ‘the era of big government is over’ and make it stick.” Frank argues that these policies were only possible because they were initiated by a Democrat, and it is worth remembering that Clinton campaigned in ‘92 on economic populism: “One percent of America’s people at the top of the totem pole now have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent,” adding that we were now facing the danger of raising “the first generation of Americans to do worse than their parents.” Clinton responded to the popularity of these ideas with policies that made inequality skyrocket.
This ploy to win over the support of capital from the Republicans worked wonderfully for the Democratic Party as a funding base, but it never worked in a consistent way electorally. It gave the GOP a better excuse to shift further to the right and to continue pushing culture war issues, and to this day the party’s base still believes that neoliberal, centrist politicians like Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama are socialists. The efforts to reach across the aisle also failed to solve the dysfunction that results from the factionalism built into America’s party system. GOP lawmakers see no benefit in acknowledging that their class war is being carried out more successfully by the other party and that in the final analysis they all have the same interests at heart. To maintain their base they have to keep up the illusion that the Democrats want to destroy the American way of life. Because it is hard to recognize how the difference in economic policies between the two parties affects their life, these voters focus on cultural differences, making them very unlikely to ever support a Democrat. Trying to attract them by stabbing progressive elements of the working class in the back is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, this is still the ideology that governs the Democratic Party elite, which projects the interests of their donors onto their fantasy “swing” voters.
An Opening for the Left : Winning, and Engaging, Disaffected Voters
It is fascinating to read Clinton’s lines in light of the viciousness with which the Democrats have attacked Bernie Sanders’ economic populist campaign. One reason, among others, is that Sanders campaigns against inequality and actually believes it. He highlights their cynical maneuvers simply by existing as a national figure. Nevertheless, it has become clear in the current election that the Democrats plan on sticking religiously to neoliberalism despite the fact that everything about the current political climate screams that neoliberalism is losing legitimacy with most Americans.
But while the political incompetence and corruption of Democratic elites provided a key opening for Bernie Sanders, we nevertheless failed to turn support into action. The problem in America is not that people stupidly support a system that doesn’t benefit them, but that most people simply drop out because of that fact. The largest group of non-voters are within the ranks of the working class, many of whom overwhelmingly support progressive initiatives. Furthermore, it is clear that Bernie Sanders had the most support from these voters. From this angle, then, it would appear that the Democrats would rather lose elections than surrender their position as the executors of capitalism. The fact that the Bernie campaign, despite this support, failed to get enough disaffected non-voters to engage is worthy of reflection.
This brings us back to the question of the “independent voter.” Who is this voter, what do they believe, and how can the left win them over in the future? Thinking about these voters as all floating somewhere in the middle is not very helpful because polling suggests that this is not actually where they exist. They identify as independents not because they are “between” the two parties, but because they feel politically alienated. They do not trust the establishment parties because they do not feel that they represent their interests. The establishment has outsourced jobs, refused to reinvest in peripheral areas hurt by outsourcing, and responded to those most harmed by neoliberalism with condescension and cruelty. The fact that inequality has gone up during every Democratic president since Carter is a signal that these voters are spot on, and justifies their support for a Democratic Socialist insurgent who made inequality and healthcare the focus of his campaign.
The problem is that the left too often fails to stick to the bread and butter issues that truly motivate these people: affordable, accessible healthcare; jobs; wage increases; public investment; tuition-free training for new skills; and trade policies that do not pit Americans against foreign sweatshop labor. Instead of sticking to these issues, when we try to appeal to them we cannot help but thread our message through a thick cloth of academic, woke, activist jargon that is alienating, confusing, and downright strange.
To understand how to better appeal to the disaffected working class, we need an image. Let’s consider the average Joe Rogan listener. This person probably does not have very strong ideological persuasion or party identity. They might combine various and potentially inconsistent ideas about how capitalism, politics, and society function or ought to function. Many of them can probably be counted as part of the massive bloc of Americans which polls demonstrate are supportive of progressive legislation like Medicare for All and higher taxes for the rich.
And, also like your average American voter, they probably combine economic progressivism with a distaste for culture war issues, PC enforcement, corporate-ready identity politics, and extreme wokeness, tendencies that do not speak to the fact that they haven’t seen a real wage increase in their lifetime. What we can reliably assume is that they share many of the values of their host: a respect for free inquiry and intellectual discussion, a basic curiosity and open-mindedness about things, a hatred of dogmatism, a decent ear for bullshit, and a skeptical attitude toward chameleon-like politicians.
We shouldn’t fault them for having incoherent political notions, or for not reducing their entire identity to some narrow activist politics of personal preference issue. In fact, we should see it as an opportunity. The left, if it is ever to become anything other than a social club for downwardly mobile PMC, must try to win open minded but non-ideological people who might justifiably not feel strongly about elite candidates. We should try to win these voters over despite the fact that they might harbor inconsistent ideas about how the world does or should work. Not only that, but it is only the left that can do so, because it is only the left that understands that politics is first and foremost about fighting for shared material interests and only secondly about sharing “ideas” or “opinions” or “culture,” or coalescing around a particular identity.
We must win over the millions of normal people who know they are getting screwed and who are interested in fighting back precisely because their brains have not been ruined by years of following centrist policy or being the most woke online. If you want to see an almost lab-perfect example of the latter strategy and its failures, simply take a look at the meme-centric Elizabeth Warren campaign, which leftists should take as a lesson on how to lose. Unfortunately for Bernie Sanders, his own campaign surrogates often fell into a similar trap, spouting activist jargon about entering into the indigenous wisdom of intersectional visions of justice or some such despite the fact that Bernie himself was incredibly, almost faultlessly reliable at sticking to bread and butter issues and universal economic justice.
We must learn to stick to our strengths. Only the left has a message for politically disaffected voters that is coherent and persuasive without being dogmatic: politics is about winning power and resources for working class Americans of all stripes—and not about cultural signifiers and being the most sensitive, politically correct, or ideologically nuanced. It is not about making everyone pass a purity test, and it is not about making it taboo to work with anyone who does not share your exact identity matrix or who once said something offensive online. This includes creating broad working class coalitions against racism, sexism and all forms of oppression. In fact, it is only this idea of a mass working-class left that can eventually win the battles that have been part and parcel of the civil rights left since its inception, in contrast to the centrists who largely see identity as a form of branding.
The left, if it is ever to be more than a PMC ghetto, must do a better job welcoming people not because they have the right opinions or cultural views, but because they are working class. This means that being “aware” of structural forms of oppression and exploitation is potentially less important than the fact that people share the same shitty experiences of capitalist life and recognize someone who is speaking to them. Because politics is most of all a way of winning power and control over our lives, this also means that what unites us is our shared material interest and class position first and foremost, and not a set of “ideas” that we all share and rigidly enforce. Ideological purity must be sacrificed for political education and class solidarity. The left is not a church, and it is not a cult, and those who consider opinion policing to be essential to their political activity are those who are most likely to give up when the rubber hits the road.
This is also why elites try to suppress shared class interest across lines of race, gender, and culture at all costs. They know that they can only keep doing the bidding of corporate America when they split up working class voters and pit them against each other.
We must stop doing their job for them by proposing politics and language that divide the working class along lines of race, identity, or insider jargon, and instead continue to push for universal programs and organizations that benefit the class as a whole.
The establishment has spoken clearly in this election: they are not abandoning neoliberalism for a politics that addresses inequality. The only thing we have is class solidarity. If the left continues to roll out figures who do not distinguish themselves clearly enough from establishment politics, and who seem to care more about their individual career than fighting for economic justice, then we will continue to fail to win over disaffected Americans, and in the worst cases we will lose them to the right nationalist candidates who will only grow in number as neoliberal consensus continues to collapse.
Elia Tommaso is a painter who lives mostly in the past.