A skeptical liberal's guide to the "alt-left": And it's not who you think

If the term means anything, it should be applied to the mainstream Democrats who lost last year's election

Published September 9, 2017 7:00AM (EDT)

Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton   (Getty/Steffi Loos/AP/Cliff Owen)
Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton (Getty/Steffi Loos/AP/Cliff Owen)

Images — millions of images — That’s what I eat — Cyclotron shit — Ever try kicking that habit with apomorphine? — Now I got all the images of sex acts and torture ever took place anywhere and I can just blast it out and control you gooks right down to the molecule — I got orgasms — I got screams —I  got all the images any hick poet ever shit out — My Power’s coming — My Power’s coming — My Power’s coming—.

— William S. Burroughs, "Nova Express"

What is the alt-left? Donald Trump and the establishment liberal pundits who were behind every misinterpretation and failed prediction of the last election have arrived at an agreement on a definition of this slippery term.

The alt-left, according to them, is the branch of the Democratic Party represented — to use a shortcut — by Bernie Sanders, or those who favor an aggressive democratic socialist agenda, backed by a grassroots uprising that includes taking a hard stance on fascism and reinstatement of constitutional rights. For the alt-right, for whom Trump is the leading instigator, the alt-left is certainly not the establishment Clintonite Democrats, the neoliberals who seek to play things down, continue acting as though we were still in normal territory except for a few flukes (oh, Russia, Comey), and as though we were simply riding out the Trump storm before things resume as before.

When Donald Trump is in agreement with establishment liberals, precisely the types who underestimated him (I would go so far as to say colluded with him in many respects to bring about his success), I would say that something is very wrong with the analysis.

We all have a pretty good sense of what the alt-right is. The alt-right is the revivification of nationalist, supremacist, even Nazi-like ideals, under the guise of a certain style of jokey, trolly internet culture. Snark and derision and contempt taken to the final degree, as though the actual Nazis had come back to do their damage through Twitter and YouTube. The alt-right, we would all agree, is not where normal politics is: Racial identity is at the center of their universe, and they are blind to the bigger reality of other peoples, other races, other points of view. The alt-right is mystical, delusional, out of sync with the economic realities of the 21st century.

But if we use the term alt-left, shouldn’t that entity be symmetrical to the alt-right? Shouldn’t it reflect the same biases of orientation as the alt-right, except from a liberal perspective?

If the alt-right is as I have just defined it, should the alt-left be those who promote economic realism, by way of grasping the true nature of trade, finance, migration, employment and, yes, imperialism, rather than those who insist that simply by believing in something (such as the beneficial results of globalization for all) it will come true?

If the alt-right is those who are terrified of immigrants, shouldn’t the alt-left be those (e.g., Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) who have put in place disciplinary measures almost as severe as the alt-right desires, rather than those who seek a regime of compassion and understanding for all?

If the alt-right refuses to take its eyes away from race to focus on the nature of wages, skills, education and global exchange, shouldn’t the alt-left be those who refuse to take their eyes off identity politics to focus on these economic realities, rather than those who want to shelve identity politics to address bread-and-butter issues?

We cannot compare the unhinged irrationalists on one side, i.e., the alt-right, with the rationalists on the other side, i.e., the progressives, the anti-fascists, the true liberals who believe in free speech and the Bill of Rights and an end to imperial domination.

Again, if Trump and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party are in open agreement on what the alt-left is, then we know there is a serious attempt to confuse matters, so that future political campaigns can be tarred and feathered before they’ve had a chance to get going. In the last election, Bernie Sanders was not the alt-left candidate; Hillary Clinton, as I will explain below, clearly was.

Trump wants to fight off progressives, socialists and liberals by elevating the actual alt-left, i.e., the neoliberals, as the ones who are sane and reasonable, meaning those he would like to be in perpetual contest with — because it’s a winning move for him and his style of alt-right politics. He cannot win with his irrationality against a brand of rationality (i.e., any version of real progressivism). He can only win against a parallel brand of irrationality (i.e., identity politics covering up for neoliberal misdeeds). So he’s trying, very early in his 2020 reelection campaign, to set the terms of debate in his favor. He despises anti-fascists, progressives and socialists; neoliberals, he can work with, being one himself when it comes to the content of his economic policies.

So let’s be careful here, and set out some definitional parameters. You are free to disagree if you can supply counter-examples and think you have a better case to make for the alt-left being what Trump suggests it is.

  1. Belief in identity as the central principle. The alt-right does not have an economic program. It has a racial program (for whites only). The alt-left does not have an economic program. It has an identity politics program (for the meritocratic only). If you’re not of the white race, in the case of the alt-right, or someone who does not believe in the tenets of neoliberalism, in the case of the alt-left, you need not apply.

These are parallel and reinforcing tendencies, and I would go so far as to say that it’s the alt-left that has empowered the alt-right in the last decade or so. The alt-left hates the "deplorables," or those who have failed to pull themselves up by the bootstraps despite neoliberal obstructions to gaining a higher education or remaining healthy; likewise, the alt-right hates their own set of deplorables, those they think are not capable of mastering white civilizational norms and understanding the value of democracy and the rule of law.

Then there is the real left: universal, pan-racialist, democratic, socialist, derived from the Enlightenment principles of equality and liberty for all. (There is actually no American left, but to keep calling Trump’s despised political sector “the real liberals,” or something like that, would be unwieldy, so I’ll just call them the left. Their politics are not so much leftist as middle-of-the-road Democratic, which would have been considered conservative in Europe not long ago.)

The alt-left, let’s be clear, does make distinctions between who is and isn’t worthy of community or government support. That has been the principle behind neoliberalism, making separations between people to decide who is deserving of citizenship, by way of paying for it in certain ways, and those who can never earn their citizenship because they are incapable of it.

Establishment neoliberalism has been monstrous in its contempt, over 40 years, for those whom it considers lazy, intellectually deficient and unable to grasp the discourse that guarantees entrée into the respectable professions. I detect this same kind of contempt, except toward a different set of people, among the alt-right. You can look at the public discourse of the last couple of years and decide for yourself which branch of the left parallels the snarkiness, ruthless objectification and media manipulation of the alt-right; that’s your alt-left right there.

  1. Putting culture over politics. Andrew Breitbart, who founded Breitbart News (later headed by Steve Bannon), held that “politics is downstream to culture.” This same belief motivates the alt-left, as it turns every political or economic discussion into one over culture.

Police brutality of African-Americans? It must be a case of inadequate sensitivity training, it must be because we haven’t changed attitudes enough. The real left wants judicial changes to rein in police power, to curtail the range of options available to domestic police, which in turn goes back to reining in imperial power.

As long as empire strikes with impunity abroad, it will definitely have repercussions on the tactics used against the poor and marginalized in this country. Notice that the alt-left never has anything to say about empire; it believes in American exceptionalism, which is essentially an ahistorical reading of history, as much as the alt-right does. The alt-right, confronted by incidents of police brutality, jumps on Black Lives Matter as the devil. The alt-left focuses on the emotion at stake in each specific incident, separated from institutional and economic causes; the real left would give due credit to Black Lives Matter, yet recognize that racial oppression is a consequence of generalized economic oppression.

The same deflection applies to any policy, which the alt-left turns into the kinds of cultural dialectics -- just as the alt-right does -- that to me seem worthless to talk about, because they are not amenable to political treatment.

The alt-left would be happy to have an endless discussion about whether or not to take down Confederate statues or other symbols of racial oppression. If we spent the next few years talking about just that, the alt-left would be delighted, because in the meantime they could continue prescribing slightly moderated versions (the Democrats’ “A Better Deal”) of the insane economic policies Trump is offering; dressed up a little better, in the rhetoric of personal empowerment and individual responsibility, but essentially the same policies toward taxes, redistribution, trade and budgets.

The real left, again, recognizes the meaning and symbolism of Confederate monuments, but also understands that without changing fundamental economic arrangements in this country, systemic racial oppression — and even the alt-right’s bursts of rhetorical and physical violence — cannot be cured; they are realists, as opposed to fantasists.

  1. The alt-left is all about the politics of symbolism. That’s right, because, just like the alt-right, the alt-left has no intention of ever getting to the bottom of things. It deals in symbolism alone.

There is a natural symbiosis between talk radio, cable news and blogs as they have evolved over the last 25 years, and both alt-right and alt-left. Both have equally fed on the tone of this discourse, which is triumphant, ahistorical, narcissistic and irrational, dedicated to self-obsessed expression rather than collective improvement. I see the snark on a site like Gawker or many of the liberal blogs which go on living zombie lives in the wake of the Trump victory as being no different than the self-absorbed pantomimes of the forerunners of the alt-right on 4chan or the various Reddit forums dedicated to regressive behavior. We might call it the mainstreaming of hysteria.

I am going to say something heretical here. Most of what is considered political satire on television is neither political nor satire. There are some exceptions. John Oliver seems to have a moral compass that judges our politics from some distance, although even here I have strong reservations. But as for Jon Stewart, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert (in his new incarnation), and unfortunately Samantha Bee these days, I consider them hysterics who are unwilling to show a political ideology, if they have any.

Stewart accelerated the present mode of satire with his famous appearance on CNN’s "Crossfire" in 2004, begging Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to act like adults by not bickering, as though politics operated according to kindergarten rules. Right away that excludes his platform from satire, because it pretends that we can have a genuine critique of society without any explicit political ideology.

If you need any recent proof of the “partisan hackery” that Stewart decried but to which the satirists have totally succumbed, Trevor Noah’s self-righteous harrumphing against antifa seems to me the mirror image of Trump’s primal yelp against them, perhaps the most repellent sound he has yet emitted. Noah, a South African born under apartheid, is dismissing everything in the arsenal of civil disobedience except the alt-left’s definition of “resistance”!

When was the last time you actually laughed at any of this political satire? Political satire today is nothing but Democratic Party talking points dressed up in snark and profanity. Witness Bee’s recent illogical defense of identity politics, equating identity politics with civil rights and presuming that questioning identity politics means defending white privilege, exactly in the mode of the alt-left.

These days Meyers and Bee, though their acts, provide mild relief in the midst of the mortal danger Trump poses to threatened communities like immigrants and Muslims, shrilly condemn the alt-right and its shenanigans, even as we get the feeling that their own politics are little different than the discredited Hillary Clinton’s. You cannot take on Trumpist fascism while having no bigger ambition in mind than Obamacare.

Here’s a measure of the losing politics that is the alt-left: Ten months after the TV “satirists” began their all-out assault on Trump, do you feel that Trump is less normalized or more normalized? Clearly, the answer is the latter, as we have more or less settled in with Trump for the duration of the ride — eight years, to be precise.

One response would be that the alt-left is eagerly awaiting Trump’s fall any day now — via impeachment, resignation or censure — so how have they normalized him? I would suggest that by keeping the focus on personalities — on Trump’s unhinged mental state, on Bannon’s satanic SNL persona, or their incompetence, ignorance and misjudgment, when clearly Trump has already accomplished his primary ambition, which is to permanently empower the alt-right and bend our national discourse — they have contributed to the normalization, because to them the antidote to one bad personality is one good personality.

Therefore, our “satirists” — as a literary critic it makes me embarrassed to call them that — remain eternally fond of Obama, and encourage the general population to keep looking to him as some sort of messiah, when if they had any moral fiber they would take him on for what he was: the enabler of the alt-right with his anti-working-class policies. The one thing that’s been consistent with Meyers, Bee, Bill Maher, et al. is to lament that Hillary Clinton — the “rational woman,” as they call her — is not in the White House. As if all her anti-democratic, anti-worker, anti-immigrant policies were beside the point.

  1. The alt-left has no sense of time because it is entirely reactive. Neither the alt-right nor the alt-left is new; they have been engaged in a dance to the death for at least a quarter-century, with the personalities, venues, modes of argument, clients and supporters and faux-opponents remaining more or less constant in that period. The entry of Trump does nothing to change this reality.

In the 1990s, the Clintonian alt-left and the media apparatus behind it presented itself as fighting a valiant battle against Newt Gingrich’s alt-righters (the racism has been persistent, it is neither new nor shocking), in order to preserve Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs — all while being the most active proponents for dismantling the later additions to the welfare state, which they successfully managed to do.

In the 2000s, the alt-left bravely engaged in a fight to preserve the gains of the civil rights movement, so that Bush and company, the alt-righters of that decade (complete with the kind of paranoia toward immigrants that is now bearing fruit), wouldn’t take us back to the 1950s. With the help of the alt-left, Bush and company did exactly that; hence the resurrection of such 1950s icons as Ayn Rand and the vicious Darwinism they represent.

In the decade of Obama and Trump, the alt-left is happily fighting the battles of the age of Reconstruction, all the while normalizing it. After the Trump emergency, whatever it turns out to be, we will be fighting the Revolutionary War all over again, and the alt-left will take due credit, while keeping the foot soldiers busy fighting the “resistance.”

The alt-left warriors who want to censor speech in order to crush the alt-right and make them vanish from public discourse really are the other side of the alt-right. Both sides engage in a ceaseless battle of who hates more; they talk about the deep recesses of the mind as if they have the power through their rhetoric to overcome it, they each depict the other side in apocalyptic terms. The ACLU is not alt-left; those activist groups on the left embarked on a mission to eliminate “hate” are alt-left.

Thus the alt-left — this is an easy way to tell who they are — has constructed its own MAGA; actually, they had that vision even before Trump came along. Their MAGA is the age of Obama, the one where Clinton rightfully wins the presidency, and where we, instead of deporting immigrants, merely keep them illegal and put the screws on them, where instead of saying impulsive things about Russia and China we efficiently conduct imperial wars, killing large numbers of people in the name of American exceptionalism.

That’s the alt-left and their resistance, their MAGA they want you to be a part of, while letting you feel self-righteous. The real left has a critique of empire; the alt-left mocks any such critique.  

  1. Both alt-right and alt-left are beholden to the power of the state. I should say the power of the state as it is presently constituted, not some utopian rendering where the state helps the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. This is more obvious in the case of the alt-left. Instead of questioning the power of the intelligence agencies — really, in our modern history there have been no institutions more programmatically destructive than the FBI and CIA — the alt-left count on them to take us back to their version of MAGA, where none of the events of the last two years happened, and they can return to income inequality, gentrification, slave wages, terrorizing immigrants, bombing Afghanistan and all the rest.

The alt-left wants the state to be an arm of the neoliberal economic elite, and I would say that under Bill Clinton and Obama they almost completed the project that began with Carter and Reagan.

The alt-right may sound different at times, with all its talk of doing away with censorship of discourse presenting white victimization, but it is explicitly authoritarian. Its supporters want a fully recharged Nazi state, they want to take all the power of the existing American state and turn it to the benefit of whites only. It has come to the point where very little authority would have to be added to powers the state already has in order to make the alt-right dystopia a reality.

The real left, you might notice, has a skeptical attitude toward the state. It is aware of the degree to which the state has become the legitimizing arm of neoliberalism, so when real leftists speak of more help to enable people to lead a better life, they presume that the nexus between the neoliberal economic elites and the state has to be broken. Therefore, anyone who belongs to the real left talks of political reform as the first order of business, without which a shift in the direction of making the state work for normal people cannot occur.

You can tell the difference between the alt-left and the real left pretty quickly with this distinction. The real left believes that in order to have free higher education, more income equality, or justice for minorities and immigrants, there will have to be a political revolution — a revolution of political consciousness. It is a very tall order, and probably an impossible one at this point. The alt-left, on the other hand, just wants you to believe that had a few stubborn Democrats voted differently in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, all would be fine. We could then have proceeded straight to whatever tinkering they want to do with health care and education to keep things humming along.

That’s how delusional the alt-left is. They’re the ones diverting national energy into a pastiche of “resistance” — the cozy online replica of the kind of “revolution” the alt-right is fomenting — that makes their followers want to believe that things can easily be different if a few deck chairs are rearranged. I won’t push the metaphor of the sinking ship too much, but you can tell the real left as the ones who know that when catastrophe strikes they won’t even be able to get on the rescue boats, they’ll be the first ones to be shoved off. They know it, and they have accepted it.   

In the wake of last November’s disastrous electoral defeat, the alt-left has been obsessively focused on Russian collusion, whereas the real left has continued its sober analysis of the economic roots of the rise of fascism.

If you have any difficulty still telling the alt-left from the real left, you can see who is counting on Russia, Mueller, the professional spies, demographics or impeachment, and who is free of these obsessions and in fact has sympathy for Trump’s supporters rather than casting them out of the body politic as unreformable racists: Were they born that way? Were they that way when the middle class was a reality 50 years ago? Does the liberal media have a role in empowering the alt-right and its vulgar simplicities by indulging in the same kind of dumbed-down conversation, except from the other side?

To conclude, the alt-left, like the alt-right, engages in particularistic discourse. It pits one side against the other, the only difference being the definition of the deplorables. Ironically, and not surprisingly, it is precisely the insane faction — the Russia-obsessed, conspiracy-minded, demographically identified alt-left — that thinks the other side, which wants real economic reform, serious wealth redistribution, free education and health care, and an end to empire, is the alt-left.

The alt-right wants to deport all immigrants; the alt-left (Hillary’s camp) only wants to keep them in perpetual purgatory; the real left wants to include them fully in our political community.

The alt-right wants to abandon trade treaties to somehow enrich and benefit whites only; the alt-left negotiates these trade treaties to benefit corporations, trusting in trickle-down economics; the real left wants to come up with a new understanding of trade, based on a fundamental rethinking of workers’ rights in the 21st-century global economy.

The alt-right wants to end affirmative action; the alt-left wants to defend it; the real left questions why we have to have economic conditions that even make it necessary.

The alt-right wants you to be on your own on health care; the alt-left wants to continue the insane privatized system, even strengthening it via Obamacare and other schemes benefiting corporate behemoths; the real left wants to make health care a public good.

The alt-right denies climate change; the alt-left wants to keep things the way they are, with slight changes that may not have any real impact in the end; the real left is committed to taking the environment to the center of every policy discussion.

One could go on and on in this vein for every policy issue, and note that the alt-right and the alt-left feed off each other’s energy, while the real left stands aside, with a different moral compass that is difficult, if not impossible, to fit into the present public discourse. If you hear two sides invited to shout at each other in mainstream disputation, you can be sure that neither one is the real left, because it is not invited to such forums.

The insane in the asylum are the last ones to doubt their sanity, which is why, appropriately enough, after this election they have been given an asylum all their own. There you will find them optimistic, deluded, counting on a Trump implosion (it’s coming any day now, after which America will go back to “normal”), reaffirming each other’s identities in garish shows of mutual appreciation (on social media they are untouchable, simply untouchable, despite the electoral defeat), and bent on continuing their double talk, their snark, their history- and morality-free discourse castigating anyone who wants real change in America as being dangerously utopian.

Both alt-right and alt-left are variants of the same dystopian mindset; Trumpists and neoliberal Democrats, the two sides that ran against each other in 2016, would rather not include the rational left in the discussion. Already, both Trump and neoliberal Democrats are equally eager to paint the rational side as paranoids, in order to pull off another sleight of hand so they may have a clear electoral field in 2020, as they finally managed to do in 2016. That’s what’s at stake in defining the alt-left.


By Anis Shivani