The three lefts have a lot of overlap, but in moments of struggle they take different paths. Here’s why.
Neera Tanden’s nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget has met unanimous Republican opposition while fracturing the left. Why are progressives divided over Tanden and sniping at each other? In the United States today, there are three “lefts” vying for power and influence. They have differing material interests and motivations for the choices they make. Moments like Tanden’s embattled nomination bring these competing tendencies into a clearer light.
Let’s take a look at the factions.
The Outsider Left: These are people and organizations that look at governance from the outside in. They exercise power mostly by trying to block things they don’t like and engaging in agitation and mobilization – but not long term organizing membership groups and demographic constituencies. They rely on social media to coalesce.
The Identitarian Left: They see representation and equity at the group level – and for themselves, individually – as trumping other (perhaps ideological or policy) concerns. Closely related to the development of new social movements in the 1960s, they carry a big part of the civil rights movement, second wave feminism and coalitional politics forward.
The Insider Left: These progressive politicos have direct access to power through their jobs in politics and governance, access to donors and officials, understanding of the details of elections and through personal networks. They ask the question: what is the best deal possible right now, under the existing balance of forces? And then seek to deliver that result. (And be seen by press as the ones who did it!)
These three lefts have a lot of overlap, but in moments of struggle they take different paths. Understanding these paths as part of how politics is a system is useful as our culture often treats politics as simply the end result of personal decisions made by people with power, and sidestep the impersonal/systemic nature of what’s happening.
The fight over Neera Tanden’s nomination is a case study here. Objectively, Neera Tanden has a well-earned reputation for being an awful human being. Progressives defending her nomination aren’t disagreeing so much as sidestepping this fact. That said, here is how the three left tribes approached her nomination:
Outsider Left: She’s a good target, because of her record and political isolation. We should do what we can to derail her nomination. If we win, our team gets a scalp – in a trophy room with very few of them. If we lose, we might nonetheless weaken her influence inside the Biden administration. Either way, it’s a good way to build left power and raise the stakes for centrist neoliberals who have a career built on pandering to the powerful.
Identitarian Left: Getting women and people of color into visible leadership is a central strategy for achieving our goals. It matters less who and more that with each such person advancing, racial and gender justice are advancing at the same time. Attacking any leader we get behind is therefore taking a stand FOR racism and misogyny.
Insider Left: We serve as the bridge between ‘what the left wants’ and ‘how the left wins.’ Our personal and organizational orientation is to avoid pissing off the folks with the most power (Biden, big donors, the power players) unless we are sure we can win. Otherwise, it’s time to play the game by letting Biden have his wins, such as appointing Tanden. After all, progressives are getting things they wants as well; if we all take our gloves off and fight it out, Republicans win! Disrupting progressive-centrist horse trading early in the Biden administration might jeopardize the issues we really want like a $15 minimum wage.
This dynamic has a material basis. Each faction has a material basis! The outsider left is composed more of individuals and media personalities than strong and enduring organizations. So they are more immune to the transactional give and take of formal politics, and more vulnerable to celebrity grifters. The identitarian left has had success elevating people and narratives. More than that, they have the wind of a rising American electorate of BIPOC and Millennial voters at their back. There’s a lot of spoils still to be had, from consultants who will benefit to politicians who can win office to constituencies who can win (needed) policy reforms that benefit them. It pays to compromise if you can to win some of those things. The insider left is in the running for top jobs — working for politicians, getting appointments to jobs at the federal/state/city level, gatekeeping the donor class and foundations and controlling unions (or parts of unions).
Ideological or emotional appeals to one part of the left mostly won’t work on the other two parts. They are responsive to different things. It’s hard to think of many people who have truly earned the allegiance of all three parts, because structurally it’s often zero-sum game. Charges of hypocrisy are commonly hurled by all three parts at each other because adherence to a set of priorities or political norms is never the point. They are highly situational and connected to who can command loyalty in a specific fight. Watching Democratic strategist Tom Watson argue that Tanden’s prolific rage weets “weren’t even very mean”’ when he spent years arguing over bad tweets from rivals to his left is one example. Feminists who opposed Kavanaugh giving Biden a pass over allegations of sexual assault is another. The key to how people behave is which part of the left they feel closest to.
The outsider left is more immune to the transactional give and take of politics, and more vulnerable to celebrity grifters.
Infighting between these factions can be a recipe for disaster — the circular firing squad at work. But it doesn’t have to be! At minimum, the infighting can be less dramatic, less emotionally driven, less performative and more over substance. Political conflict on the left is healthy when the topic is policy preferences, individual track records and ideology. But all three lefts could do better to promote better “conflict norms” for how this unfolds. While I am probably closest to the outsider left, I have many friends and allies in the other two. This changes how I debate and interact on the issues. It influences where and how to push for my personal interests, which are sometimes material. (Assume at all times that material interests exist, and not knowing what they are is a good reason to be cautious.)
The #ForceTheVote struggle was a moment when part of the outsider left (though certainly not most of it!) escalated an argument over tactics dramatically, and it backfired. They wanted the 120 or so House members who support Medicare for All to force House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into granting a floor vote they were doomed to lose badly. Attacking AOC and the Squad as “frauds” who were preventing the American people from enjoying the benefits of Medicare for All, the Force The Vote proponents unified the insider left and the identitarian left so intensely that other outsider left folks closed ranks against Jimmy Dore and his followers.
Bernie Sanders publicly opposing Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack is a situation where someone with outsider left instincts is picking a battle he can wage and lose without paying a high price. In contrast, if Bernie had led a charge against Tanden, he would face the wrath of both the identitarian and insider lefts. Instead, he merely refused to take a public position on Tanden’s nomination while her chances of being confirmed steadily eroded.
You can look at many other inner-left fights to see how these three blocs jockey for position. “Winning” means different things at different times. But, it is almost always a function of keeping your own part of the left as united as possible, winning over portions of the other lefts, and avoiding having elements of all three come after you. After all, while highly differentiated at the top, most ‘regular’ left activists are a mix of all three, and often on a journey from one camp to the other.
Charles Lenchner is a co-founder of People for Bernie. He also co-founded Ready for Warren in 2013 and was online organizing director for the New York Working Families Party. He is currently affiliated with Roots Action, which played a key role in opposing Neera Tanden’s nomination.
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