When establishment Democrats attack the "hard left," what are they really afraid of?

Centrist Democrats have started parroting right-wing talking points about the "hard left." That's brainwashing

Published August 25, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders, Nera Tanden and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; (Getty/Drew Angerer/Neilson Barnard/Mario Tama)
Bernie Sanders, Nera Tanden and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; (Getty/Drew Angerer/Neilson Barnard/Mario Tama)

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In my interview last week with political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, who predicted a 42-seat "blue wave" four months in advance, she also discussed the groundbreaking campaigns of Stacey Abrams and Beto O'Rourke, even though neither was elected. Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, offered a curious response on Twitter: "Stacey Abrams and Beto ran liberal campaigns, not hard left campaigns."

As Bitecofer replied, “I don't advocate hard left campaigns, that's not what my research argues.” She later added that “my thesis IS the Beto/Abrams turnout model, not something else.” Ideology wasn’t the issue she focused on — mobilizing base voters was.

Tanden's response is both curious and troubling because literally no one argues for "hard left" campaigns. As retired intelligence analyst James Scaminaci tweeted in the ensuing conversation:

"Hard Left" is Marxists, Marxist-Leninist, Trotskyists, Leninists, Stalinists, Maoists, Spartacus League, Guevaras. Bernie, AOC, DSA, Warren, FDR ain't "hard left." If you use "HL," you are grossly misinformed about left-wing politics. You might have missed the Cold War.

In short, “hard left” is a bogeyman term so far as American politics is concerned — one meant to put Democrats constantly on the defensive, either cowering or fighting with each other. It recalls the worst days of McCarthyism. Which is why I responded

Whenever someone says, "hard left," I hear "brainwashed."


Repeating right-wing frames is a no-no. It’s as simple as that. Tanden’s hardly the only one to do this, but she’s the president of the Center for American Progress, and closely associated with the leadership of the Democratic Party. CAP's Think Progress blog has caught right-wingers using this attack phrase for years — like this entry, noting Newt Gingrich using it to smear legendary PBS journalist Bill Moyers. Tanden should know better. Not in spite of being a close ally and longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton, but because of it.

After all, the right-wing media has used the “hard left” label to attack Clinton since August 1992, when the American Spectator ran a tone-setting attack story: “The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock: Hillary Clinton’s hard-left past and present.”  The term had no discernible content — there was nothing that it meaningfully pointed to — and that lack of content continues to this day.  Yet it connoted something sinister and unyielding, something foreign, close-minded, intolerant and hidden. Those connotations continue to this day, even while simply denoting something conservatives strongly dislike. Its meaninglessness is a feature, not a bug: It can tar anyone, for any reason — or no reason at all.

Conservative media critic Brent Bozell (William F. Buckley’s cousin), called NPR “hard left” as part of “the MSNBC-NPR Alliance,” typified by Terry Gross  interviewing Rachel Maddow. Conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin used it to describe MSNBC’s evening opinion show lineup, three years before joining the network as a contributor after her movement’s bankruptcy gave us Donald Trump. (Maddow, targeted on both occasions, has repeatedly encouraged moderates Claire McCaskill and Amy Klobuchar to run for president, so they’re probably fair game, too.)

World-class creep and Trump defender Alan Dershowitz has accused “the hard left” of having been anti-Semitic for 20 years for criticizing Israel — citing Black Lives Matter as an example — and said “the hard right” was only recently “almost catching up.” (Thus revealing his utter ignorance of how central anti-Semitism is to white nationalism.) These are a few almost random examples of how carelessly and meaninglessly the right has deployed this term. On the one hand, we have sinister figures like Hillary Clinton, Rachel Maddow and Terry Gross. (Hm, what do they have in common, I wonder?) On the other, we have Dershowitz’s unnamed Twitter tormentors.

 But what does it actually translate into, if we look at the substantive politics of supposed hard-left figures such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and so on? A livable wage and a livable planet? Somewhat less than Eisenhower-era tax rates? Are these really such scary, wild, fringe ideas, seen by most Americans as dangerous, foreign and threatening? Plenty of data says otherwise.  

A January poll found that 55% of registered voters favored raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, while another 27% favored raising it by less. In March, a battleground district poll found 65% for raising it to $15 an hour by 2024, as provided by the Raise the Wage Act of 2019. In June, an Atlantic story announced, “The Green New Deal Has Already Won,” with the subhead, “The far-left policy has shifted the climate debate — and what now counts as “moderate” is surprisingly muscular.”

A mid-July poll reported by Christian Post in early August, found that 63% thought the Green New Deal was a good idea, including 40% of white evangelicals — the demographic core of Trump's support. And when Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70% tax rate over $10 million was polled after it was first announced, it gained 59% support — including 45% of self-identified Republicans. These are all vastly more popular than Trump’s plans to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Right-wing media defines the “hard left”

So let’s step back and take a good hard look at the “hard left” label Tanden and others have so carelessly tossed around. First, let’s go back to that 1992 story attacking Hillary Clinton’s. It warned that "during her tenure as a foundation officer [she] gave away millions (much of it in no-strings-attached grants) to the left — including sizable sums to hard-left organizers," but specific examples failed to match the vague, unquantified hype.

The juiciest specific evidence offered was that in 1988, the princely sum of $2,500 was given to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “a group dedicated to exposing conservative bias in the media, especially television networks." As a FAIR volunteer at the time, I can confirm this was true, and remains so today. But how exactly did that make us “hard left”?

The article explains: In a newsletter issue devoted to coverage of the First Gulf War, editor Jim Naureckas "lashed out: 'The euphoria at the beginning and the end of the Persian Gulf War bracket one of the most disturbing episodes in U.S. journalistic history — a period when many reporters for the national media abandoned any pretense of neutrality or reportorial distance in favor of boosterism for the war effort." 

Well, if that made us “hard left,” guess who else was “hard left"?  Former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter, who, as Naureckas noted, put it this way on C-SPAN in February 1991: “If I were the government, I’d be paying the press for the kind of coverage it is getting right now.” 

Such was the meaninglessness of the term when used to attack Hillary Clinton in 1992:  It was intended to connote Soviet gulags, but with no any “there” there at all. Effectively, calling a spade a spade was deemed "far left."

Fast forward 16 years.  In April 2008, legendary PBS journalist Bill Moyers — who once served as Lyndon Johnson’s White House press secretary — interviewed the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, then-candidate Barack Obama’s controversial pastor. It was an in-depth discussion in sharp contrast with weeks of relentlessly superficial and hysterical reporting [intro-overview/transcript]. Before it aired, Huffington Post published advance excerpts, and Bill O’Reilly went ballistic, along with his guest, Newt Gingrich, as described by Matt Corley at Think Progress

“Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly attacked Moyers on his show last night, calling him a ‘far left PBS guy’ who is ‘extreme’ and ‘pathetic,'” Corley wrote, adding that later in the show, Gingrich called Moyers “a hard left sympathizer for anybody who dislikes America.”

Wright’s "God damn America" sermon was widely condemned but almost never seriously examined in the white-dominated mainstream media. One exception was Dallas Morning News religion reporter Jeffrey Weiss, who prefaced his examination by noting that Wright's message was “profoundly anti-government,” but “also a message of hope and redemption with a solid stream of links to Bible verses.” Earlier, Weiss noted that Wright’s “curse is conditional: ‘God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme,’" adding, “The idea that God will harshly judge a sinning nation that chooses not to repent is an idea that can be found in many Christian pulpits. Not to mention most of the Bible's book of Jeremiah.”

So, there was a biblical basis for Wright’s preaching, rather than a Marxist one. He may have been hard on America, but he was “hard Christian,” not “hard left.” While Moyers may have been unusual in not joining in the national hysteria, he wasn’t alone — and not without reason. But reason is exactly what O’Reilly, Gingrich and company are so vehemently opposed to. That’s the animating purpose behind using terms like “hard left.” 

After all, the religious right has repeatedly called for, warned of or claimed evidence of God’s judgment on America, with no similar outcries of condemnation. Just after 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson briefly got into hot water for being so tone-deaf to the moment. But as the New York Times noted, their “remarks were based in theology familiar to and accepted by many conservative evangelical Christians.” Even in that rare moment of criticism, they were excused, rather than being similarly attacked and labelled “hard right” by their conservative fellow travelers. And no one batted an eye when Falwell fully reaffirmed his remarks just days before his death. 

So why does anyone outside the right-wing media circus fall for this kind of propaganda, let alone actively promote it? We know why Fox News and the Republican establishment say this sort of nonsense. But why do establishment Democrats and MSNBC, the supposed “Fox News of the left,” do the same?  

More importantly, what are they trying to hide? As I inquired above, what does the label hide in terms of policy? A livable wage and a livable planet are cornerstones — and popular ones at that. Higher tax rates (although still lower than Eisenhower’s) are popular too.

Shortly after Bernie Sanders announced his campaign in 2015, I wrote about his candidacy, quoted him touting the accomplishments of European social-democratic and democratic socialist governments — especially Scandinavian-style socialism — and pointed to an array of Sanders-compatible proposals identified by the Progressive Change Institute in its “Big Ideas” poll with 70% support or more. These included universal pre-K, fair trade policies that protect workers and the environment, an end to gerrymandering, debt-free public college, and a Green New Deal focused on clean-energy jobs, to name a few.

While the term “hard left” connotes doctrinaire close-mindedness, the full list of Big Ideas, and the grassroots process of how they were generated, points to the exact opposite: In real life, folks like me on the left want to expand the conversation. We want to include more voices and more possibilities.​ America is a global outlier among developed nations in so many ways — gun deaths, health care spending vs. outcomes, child poverty and more. We’d like to see our nation move into the mainstream of what other nations have accomplished, if not become what we should be: the world leader.

We want to raise public awareness of what’s actually possible and what’s actually been done, and have a robust public debate, precisely the opposite of the doctrinaire close-mindedness attributed to us. We also want more different voices taking part in that debate — Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, the Parkland students, the Sunrise Movement, etc. — and want to move it in new directions. That’s what most of the Democrats' 2020 candidate field has responded to, and it doesn’t make any of them “hard left.” You are indeed brainwashed if you talk like that. 

Maybe the real problem is the hard center

More than that: Talking about the "hard left" suggests that one is really part of the "hard center" — a knee-jerk defender of centrism for its own sake, regardless of what that center contains or where it lies in the larger moral landscape of history. 

In his 1986 book, "The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam," Daniel Hallin described political discourse in terms of three concentric spheres — an innermost sphere of consensus, for claims no one questions (at least so far as journalists believe); a "sphere of legitimate controversy" where standard political arguments take place and journalists are supposed to be neutral; and a sphere of deviance, which journalists can simply ignore.  The boundaries of the spheres can shift over time, and the far right has built a powerful propaganda machine to move its crazy fringe ideas into the mainstream. That's a large part of why we have an unhinged conspiracy theorist sitting in the White House today. 

Today’s hard centrists simply accept that as fact, but they want to prevent any ideas escaping the "sphere of deviance" on the left to become subjects of legitimate debate — because once they do, they could become wildly popular, and there's no telling where that might lead. We could virtually eliminate child poverty. We could make mass shootings an historical relic. We could save the planet from catastrophic climate change and biodiversity collapse.

These are dangerous ideas, because they give people hope and because they are eminently doable: A world that works for everyone — no matter your race, religion, gender or orientation — instead of just a tiny handful at the top. The latter dispensation is what hard centrists are defending, whether they understand that or not.

As a leftist, I try to think differently, outside the present moment. I look back 100 years — not to feel superior to those in the past, but to try to minimize, as much as possible, the embarrassment of future generations. I compare the common sense of today to common sense then, and ask myself, “What will be common sense 100 years from now?” I try to let myself be guided by that, knowing it’s only a best guess on my part, if I’m lucky — a guess that can always be improved upon.

That’s what makes me “hard left,” according to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich and company — and according to the hard centrist pundits and establishment Democrats who mindlessly echo their hollow accusations. It’s an absurd accusation, as nonsensical as anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth. But the Very Serious People take it very seriously indeed, which is why we have to take it seriously as well — if only to heap ridicule on it.

Thinking like that leads to some unpopular conclusions. But I’m a writer, not a politician running for office. I don’t expect politicians to think just like I do — but I support ones I believe will move us toward the future I imagine. What Rachel Bitecofer is telling us is that that can be a practical solution as well. She doesn't say it has to be. But it can be. 

Polling is beginning to support that as well. A new battleground district poll from Data for Progress found that Senator Elizabeth Warren had the highest net-favorable ratings among the presidential candidates tested, that Ocasio-Cortez is viewed roughly as favorably as Joe Biden — and more favorably than Donald Trump or the Democratic leadership, and that “clean-energy companies” and “climate activists” both poll far more favorably than “fossil fuel companies”:  

This is a snapshot in time, and just one slice of the electorate. It’s not conclusive proof of anything, but it’s hard evidence that flies in the face of the whole “hard left” canard in general, as well as several specific mistaken corollaries: that Joe Biden is obviously the most “electable” candidate, that Trump will be re-elected by making Ocasio-Cortez “the face of the Democratic Party,” that a climate debate would hurt Democrats in 2020, and that climate activists could cost them the election.

Note also that this is a poll of registered voters. The central thrust of Stacey Abrams’ campaign last year in Georgia was to expand the electorate by exciting people and giving them something to vote for, a clear alternative to what they were voting against. There’s every reason to believe Abrams would have won, if not for Brian Kemp’s illegal interference, and she has clearly laid the foundation for future victories.

Conservatives are routinely registered, and vote at significantly higher levels than progressives do, so Abrams’ lesson is one that can and should be replicated nationwide. As Bitecofer says, that's what her model is all about. The ideas and people currently being demonized as “hard left” are synergistic with her model, for reasons sketched out above. It’s time to bury this right-wing canard once and for all — and it’s time for Democrats to stop brainwashing themselves.



By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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