Leftists, save yourselves! It's a bad moment for nihilistic self-indulgence

The far-left bromance with RFK Jr. is only helping Trump. Remember how left-wing purity worked out in the 1930s?

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published September 30, 2023 12:27PM (EDT)

Robert F Kennedy Jr., Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Robert F Kennedy Jr., Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Dr. Anthony Fauci has generously said that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is not "inherently malicious," while describing him as "a very disturbed individual." I suppose he means that Kennedy actually believes his wild accusations and reckless conspiracy theories, unlike other well-known political figures we could name.

A few weeks ago, former Bernie Sanders spokesperson Briahna Joy Gray quote-tweeted RFK Jr. complaining that the Democrats were "rigging the primary," adding, "This is why so many leftists have been arguing against running within the Democratic Party. Period." 

That raised my hackles more than a little. Supposed leftists who argue against running in the Democratic Party in 2023 are like the German Communists in the early 1930s, who attacked the Social Democrats as "social fascists" and enabled the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Given the razor-thin margins of Joe Biden's 2020 victories in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia — less than 43,000 votes in total — left-wing third-party votes or abstainers could easily provide Donald Trump the edge he needs to return to the White House and enact a neo-fascist agenda. One thing they definitely can't do is win any real power for the left. 

Whatever such "leftists" may think in their own minds or echo chambers, they're historically ignorant and objectively pro-fascist in this political moment. As a lifelong leftist I don't just reject their position, I reject the very notion that they're leftists at all. Latching onto RFK Jr., who is basically Trump's Democratic doppelganger, only adds insult to injury. 

There's a lot to be said about Joe Biden and the ever-problematic Democratic Party — more on both below. But I'm not here to talk about Biden or the Democrats, but rather about the actual left. That's what I'm fighting for, and that's much bigger than partisan electoral politics, which is only a fraction of politics as a whole.

After quoting RFK Jr., Gray continued: "We already learned everything we needed to learn from Bernie's two runs. Supporting third party candidates threatens the Dem's rigged system and forces a conversation about ending first-past-the-post-voting." 

I responded angrily: "You're not a leftist. You're a narcissistic virtue-signaling nihilist who's actively helping MAGAfascists destroy American democracy just 3 years after the most massive civil rights demonstrations in our history. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is your game." 

It was painful to say that, but it's true. Risking the possibility of a Trump presidency-for-life for the sake of forcing a so-called "conversation about ending first-past-the-post-voting"? If that's not left-wing self-parody, I've never heard any. How could any silver-bullet electoral fix possibly be worth such a reckless gamble? Lee Drutman has a useful reality-check on that (and I think Drutman's being overly naive).

There's a vast range of legitimate political choices leftists can make, to be clear. I think it's generally a bad idea for folks on the left to attack one another over strategic differences. We need strategic and ideological diversity, and we need to welcome and engage profound disagreements — that's healthy. But it's simply bad faith to call yourself a "leftist" while, in practical terms, you're working to sabotage decades of hard-won, partial progress and allow fascists to win. 

What followed was predictable. I was repeatedly attacked as a defender or tool of the Democratic Party, when I would say I was defending a non-suicidal left that isn't suspiciously eager for a bromance with the far right.

One poster suggested they were ready to "vote for Trump round 2" if that would force me to "fight for people's rights beyond your own." That threat, they said, "seems to be the only thing that scares you enough to take substantive action. Nothing changes in the world of the poor either way." 

It's just bad faith to call yourself a "leftist" while, in practical terms, working to sabotage decades of progress and allow Donald Trump to win.

Of course that person knew nothing about my lifelong dedication to activist politics, but that's not even the important part. In fact, "the world of the poor" has measurably changed under the current Democratic administration, and those changes could be made permanent if leftists united to support it, rather than jumping ship and setting fire to it.  

As a direct result of the "unity agreement" between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, child poverty was cut almost in half from 2020 to 2021. That came through the refundable Child Tax Credit, a de facto child allowance on the European social-democratic model, which I wrote about for Salon years ago. Such child allowances are many times more effective than non-refundable tax credits, and could bring U.S. child poverty rates in line with the much lower rates of Western Europe.

That's just one facet of the policies to which Biden committed in order to gain progressive support, and which Democrats came close to permanently enacting in 2022. It's tragic that didn't happen, but it was historic that such sweeping changes were made, even on a temporary basis, as a proof of concept of what's possible if we don't surrender to self-sabotage in the face of predictable center-right backlash.

Real change is hard. It doesn't happen through weird electoral tricks, and it doesn't happen overnight. It's never as sexy or glamorous as the self-aggrandizing grandstanding of social media politics. But it's the true test of everything we claim to believe in.

So what about Joe Biden and the Democrats — and what about this political moment? Of course Biden is no leftist, and his party remains largely terrified of the left. But there's more space for real progressives in the Democratic Party than there has been for decades. More to the point, it's the only vehicle we have to get certain things done: That's why Bernie Sanders has caucused with the Democrats throughout his career in the House and Senate, while remaining an independent. 

I'm completely fine with people who devote 99% of their political energy attacking Democrats from the left on climate, prison abolition, militarism, class politics, you name it. But set aside that crucial 1%, because sometimes (indeed, pretty often) you need to vote for Democrats in order to keep Republicans out of office and create space for all the other battles we need to fight. That's my minimum standard for the non-suicidal left. Almost everything else is up for grabs. 

When it comes to Biden and the Democrats, the question is how leftists think about them, across all the differences in perspectives that can often divide us. My first rule of thumb is not to echo right-wing tropes or draw on their deeper narratives or worldviews. It's tempting to take advantage of supposedly popular images, ideas or themes, but we need to be hyper-vigilant about not empowering the right, particularly when the right's counter-mobilization against social progress has gained so much strength on its own. Here's a key example: the toxic allure of generational politics, especially as reflected in the discourse about Joe Biden's age. 

Yes, Biden is old. But that might be the least problematic thing about him. I've never much trusted him, even before he betrayed Anita Hill and America's women. He's a lifelong political insider, driven by ideas about America's institutions I do not share. But what I do trust is the long, slow but ultimately powerful process of bottom-up social change, particularly when driven by generations of organizing. Such change, over time, alters incentive structures, even in mainstream politics.

Joe Biden's age is not much of a problem — but the narrative that Biden's age is a problem is a huge gift to the right, which ought to be enough of a reason for leftists to reject it. 

This is where Biden's age is in some sense an advantage. We can see how differently he responded to the Bernie Sanders challenge than Hillary Clinton did. We can see it in his admission that he is a "transition figure." We can see it in the things he fought for in 2021 and 2022 that he never would have in earlier years. It's not about trusting Joe Biden personally, but about understanding that generations of activism from below on a wide range of issues have changed the political climate. Because Biden has personally experienced that change over the decades, his age is actually more a positive than a negative.

I'm not saying that a younger, more progressive candidate wouldn't be ideal. Of course she would. But we do not live in an ideal world. In the world we live in, Biden's age is not much of a problem — but the narrative that Biden's age is a problem is a huge gift to the right, which ought to be enough of a reason for leftists to reject it. 

At its root, the narrative about Biden's age is twofold: It's about generational politics, commonly expressed in boomer-bashing, and it's about attacks on "gerontocracy," which fail to distinguish between the costs and benefits of older people holding power.

The right-wing origins of generational politics are clear enough. America's second-rate welfare state does much better in directly serving seniors than anyone else, so it makes an inviting target for conservatives. Beginning in the 1980s and '90s, they tried to scare younger voters into thinking that Social Security wouldn't be there when they retired, claiming it was a "Ponzi scheme," a false charge that could be leveled at any social insurance system. 

By the end of the '90s, even Bill Clinton was talking about "reforming" Social Security, echoing the ways he'd already slashed welfare to the poor. While the issue faded after 9/11, George W. Bush proposed Social Security "reform" after winning re-election in 2004. There was intense public backlash, but the right-wing dream of privatizing both Medicare and Social Security never went away.  

In 2014, economist Dean Baker published an article warning of more calls for generational warfare. The real problem, he observed, was not Social Security but economic inequality: "The next generation's standard of living depends far more on their before-tax wages than what gets taken out of their check for Social Security taxes." The threat to future living standards was not the "falling ratio of workers to retirees," Baker continued, but "the continuation of the upward redistribution that we have seen over the last three decades."

If you're not convinced, we should add that the vast majority of baby-boomers did not benefit from that upward redistribution. The anger directed at them was doubly misguided: They were the wrong targets, picked for the wrong reasons. 

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Of course there are other reasons for intergenerational tension or conflict, but a similar logic applies. It wasn't "boomers" as an organized political force that failed to act to prevent climate catastrophe, for example. It was fossil fuel companies lying for decades about the science they understood perfectly well, and an entire right-wing propaganda enterprise swinging into action to support them. 

Group politics — including racism, antisemitism, homophobia and so on — has always been a powerful force deployed by right-wing elites to manipulate low-information voters. But generational politics can work much the same way, in part because it can so easily be naturalized in pop culture. ("OK, Boomer!") 

A moment's reflection should be enough to grasp the problem. When Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner said he'd only interviewed white men for his new book on rock history because no women or Black artists were "articulate enough on this intellectual level," there was a predictable wave of boomer-bashing in response. But of course most of the artists Wenner ignored or disdained — Joni Mitchell, Prince, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Madonna and so on — were boomers too. By skipping over that fact, the angry response actually reinforced Wenner's racist, sexist corporate narcissism, which should have been the central focus. 

America's gerontocracy sucks. But gerontocracy per se is not the problem — it's how it's shaped by race, gender and class, along with other issues leftists focus on when we're not being suckered into disinformation debates.

The question of gerontocracy is admittedly more complicated. For one thing, America's gerontocracy sucks. But again, gerontocracy per se is not the problem. It's the nature of our specific gerontocracy, shaped by race, gender, class and the other issues that leftists rightly focus on, at least when we're not being suckered into disinformation-driven debates. Consider, for a moment, how many indigenous cultures venerate their elders as sources of wisdom and guidance. Those aren't gerontocracies as such, since power is distributed in a variety of ways, and the power of elders is usually advisory, not direct or managerial. But that should serve to remind us that the problem isn't just about old people with old people's ideas. That's been repeatedly reinforced in left history as well, from the Gray Panthers of the 1970s to Third Act today.

Even within America's gerontocracy, there are figures like Bernie Sanders, Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and Bill Pascrell who we'd be foolish to cast aside. Their decades of experience in government, politics and activist causes are a blessing. More broadly, legislative term limits are a genuinely terrible anti-progressive "reform" that mostly serves to shift real long-term power away from elected legislators and into the hands of corporate lobbyists. Term limits for mayors, governors and presidents are an entirely different thing, because of how power works in the executive versus the legislative realm — and understanding power relationships is foundational for any sane left politics.  

In short, all the age-related arguments being floated about Biden and the Democrats are a distraction at best, and at worst anathema to what the sane left ought to focus on. 

Much of the anxiety driving all the speculation about Biden and the 2024 election results from his poor poll numbers — both in overall approval ratings and in head-to-head polls against Donald Trump. But if we ask what this really means more than a year before the election, and also what it means for the left, the only possible answer is: Not much. 

Sure, it would be reassuring to see Biden's approval above 50%, with a healthy lead over Trump. But the fact that we don't see that tells us literally nothing about how 2024 is likely to turn out, as Heather Digby Parton wrote recently for Salon. It's well understood that polls this far out have little predictive power, but Parton goes further than that, citing similar Democratic panic narratives from 1995 and 2011. The cries of impending doom in those years were, if anything, louder than they are today, yet both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were easily re-elected a year or so later. 

Cries of impending Democratic doom were even louder in 1995 and 2011 than they are now. Check the history books to find out how those incumbent presidents fared a year later.

Let's also remember that those two incumbent Democrats had presided over massive midterm losses that hadn't just wiped out House majorities, but had swept hundreds of Democratic state legislators out of office — 486 in 1994 and 707 in 2010. In November 2010, the month of the Tea Party wave election, Marist found that 48% of voters said they would vote against Obama, while only 36% planned to vote for him. When we consider that Democrats did surprisingly well in the 2022 midterms — barely losing the House and gaining a seat in the Senate — the case for Biden panic starts to look even weaker. 

But wait! There's more. Polls are speculations about the future, but elections are about counting real votes. In roughly 30 special elections so far this year, Democrats are running an average of 11% better than they did in 2020, according to 538. So there's good reason to believe that Biden and the Democrats will do much better next year than the panicky, poll-driven narratives of the moment would have you believe. 

Nothing is guaranteed, of course: The one thing we can safely predict is unpredictable change. But conventional wisdom, as usual, is almost certainly wrong, and leftists should know better than to buy into it. Democrats have an excellent chance to win back the House and hold the White House next year. (The Senate could be more challenging.) Leftists would be wise to get more of their own candidates and allies elected as Democrats, rather than turning to bitter, dead-end gambits or running away scared.

I should also respond, as respectfully as possible, to Jeff Cohen's recent Salon commentary asking whether "liberal propaganda," especially as presented by MSNBC, is "distorting our perception." The answer, of course, is yes. But I'm not convinced that's as important as Cohen believes it is. I'm sure he's correct that many "MSNBC-watching liberals" believe that "while Fox News serves up a steady stream of propaganda, they are getting the straight news from MSNBC," and he's also correct that that's not true. Hallmarks of propaganda, like selective outrage and selective facts, can be found on both platforms. But Cohen's presentation is misleading in its own way:

Fox News cherry-picks video clips and factoids to portray President Biden as a weakling who is captive of his party's left wing or the Chinese Communist Party, or both. He's not. On MSNBC, he's portrayed as a transformative agent of change, and sometimes as the second coming of FDR. He's not that either.

There's an implied false equivalency here that's not fair. Fox News still dominates right-wing media, while MSNBC plays a much smaller role on the center-left. Any comparison must be made with this in mind. Second, the Fox News narrative is relentlessly repeated fantasy, while the dominant MSNBC narrative is one among several competing narratives, which may misrepresent Biden's level of agency but still contain a germ of truth. Even the scaled-back Biden agenda, symbolizing his party's shift to the left, has been "transformative" in some ways — particularly if it can be built on further.  

Cohen's deeper point that "credulous news consumers who reside snugly in the bubble of corporate liberal media … are being propagandized and oversold on Biden" is probably true to some extent. So are some of his arguments about Biden's patently insufficient climate agenda and his half-measures on student debt and health care. But while those things are clearly of crucial importance to leftists and progressives, they are not the principal source of Biden's perceived political weakness. 

To coin a phrase, it's the economy, stupid — or, more to the point, it's how American voters perceive the economy. As political scientist Mark Copelovitch has repeatedly argued on Twitter and elsewhere, "No, most folks aren't irrational. Yes, some have suffered more materially from inflation. But for most it's mainly media/elite cues. The only thing folks have heard about the economy is that inflation is out of control & there's a recession. For 2 years." 

Copelovitch's "Inflation/Recession Hysteria" chart, based on search results of news articles, tells the whole story in a glance. Starting in January of 2021, "inflation" dominates in every timeframe he measures. "Recession" is well behind but comfortably ahead of "unemployment/jobs" and "recovery," which objectively ought to be the big economic narratives of the last two-plus years. And Copelovitch is a veritable voice in the wilderness, not an MSNBC talking head. In this context, I would argue the "liberal media" is more responsible for undermining support for Biden than for promoting it. 

Given the mainstream media's relentless focus on "inflation" and "recession" rather than jobs and economic recovery, I would argue it's done more to undermine support for Biden than to promote it.

While Democratic presidents have long outperformed Republicans on the economy, voters still tend to trust Republicans more, largely because the GOP is associated with business and people tend to think (often falsely) that business success equates to economic competence. Whatever Biden's failings, and they are many, he was determined to do much better than Barack Obama did during the failed recovery from the Great Recession. Pressure from the left — especially from the Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020 — played a role in making that happen, and leftists should be proud of that fact, even if it hasn't produced the "transformative" political effects we might have hoped for. 

As scholar Deva Woodly told me last October, social movements "change the political environment before they change individual people's opinions … and as they start to think more and more about those ideas, then social movements have an opportunity to begin to change people's minds." That's how you change "the choice set that is available." Public opinion on marriage equality, the climate crisis and police reform offer examples of how this can work, although the process is never seamless. 

That kind of movement building, aimed at changing common sense, is what the left should focus on. It's always a more fruitful political path than the hamster wheel of presidential politics. One inevitable aspect of movement building is engaging with mainstream politicians, who sometimes help the cause and sometimes hinder it. Dumping Joe Biden for a clearly worse alternative isn't even a crapshoot. It's just self-annihilation, with no clear strategy and no clear purpose.

Of course the left should always focus on expanding the scope of what's possible, or it isn't the left anymore. But if we're unwilling to reckon with reality, what good are we to anyone? Then we're just narcissistic, virtue-signaling nihilists, as I so eloquently put it. As the legendary DJ and fervent Jesse Jackson supporter Casey Kasem used to say: "Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds." We have to do both.

By Paul Rosenberg

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

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