Discover more from Welcome Stack
Rules for Engaging Radicals
Rationale, the new reality, and rules for constructive conflict between the center-left and far-left.
Those looking to return the party to win the center know that conflict with the far-left is necessary. Critiques from the left against approaches to winning (popularism, the DLC, etc.) often miss a major change across race and class in recent decades: today’s moderates mostly clash with highly educated whites and seek a Democratic faction more aligned with views held by majorities of Black and Hispanic voters.
Intra-party conflict is never simple, then or now. And it should be done with a sober evaluation of today’s reality, the stakes, and the various structures that conflict can take. As such, it is worth being explicit and structured in considering the rationale for conflict, the new reality under which it unfolds, and some rules for engaging.
Political moderates tend to be more conflict-averse. But, as political scientists and leaders demonstrated last time Democrats were in deep trouble, those who want to grow the party must structure productive conflict with the far-left.
This doesn’t mean fighting for fun, it means drawing important distinctions to communicate more clearly to the rest of the country. Conflict has real costs and can distract — many on the far-left share motivations and goals with the center-left — so questions are warranted.
Is conflict necessary? Is it truthful? Is it helpful?
Today’s far-left activist faction has made a big business out of rejecting political reality. In some cases, that’s fine — they can be left to advocate for pie-in-the-sky hashtags and are free to ignore swing districts without drawing unnecessary conflict. But, as the old saying goes, your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins. Once the far-left threatens the party’s ability to sustain a durable governing majority, intervention is warranted.
Subscribe to The Welcome Party for more Big Tent analysis
Rationale: Losses, Lies, and Deadly Sloganeering
That is the current reality. Irresponsible campaigning by the far-left cost Democrats seats in the House in 2020. As Whip Jim Clyburn famously declared, “Sloganeering kills people. Sloganeering destroys movements.”
For a clear-cut example of the far-left’s underperformance in swing districts, look at what happened in Nebraska’s third congressional district, where a Justice Democrats-backed candidate lost a district Biden won handily.
The ignorance and disruptiveness of the far-left is making it increasingly difficult for Democrats to hold the middle — and protect democracy.
Aside from concrete policy disagreements, there are a couple important political reasons to clarify distinctions between the center-left and the far-left:
Losses: The far-left hurts Democrats electorally. Justice Democrats and Our Revolution have never flipped a single swing seat — ever. And the only Justice Democrats-backed candidate to run in a swing race lost dramatically in a midwestern district that Joe Biden won handily on the same ticket.
Lies: The far-left fudges the facts. From magical thinking to downright lies about what is possible, the far-left attacks political reality in order to avoid having to adapt to it. The far-left employs turnout myths to dodge having to persuade voters, denies where and how frequently progressive candidates lose, and weaves together glossy but fact-free narratives about what it takes to win swing districts.
(The New) Reality: Not Your Father’s Far-Left
So constructive conflict with the far-left is necessary. What does that look like today?
The modern-day center-left is often compared to the DLC (the last time a center-left intervention was successful), but things are quite different now. The most famous case of differentiation was Bill Clinton in 1992. In efforts to win over middle class white voters, Clinton’s racialized critique became so infamous it has a name (the “Sister Souljah Moment”).
The dynamics are almost entirely flipped now: highly educated, high socioeconomic status white progressives have moved much further to the left of most voters of color.
The 1990’s case study — often invoked by critics of moderates — has a cringeworthy dynamic: a Georgetown, Yale, and Oxford-educated white guy calling out a prominent Black activist.
The far-left target of today’s conflict is the reverse: a white 20-something in Brooklyn who has more degrees than they do children.
And the moderate most effectively making the critique? A Black alum of South Carolina State University:
Times have changed.
Earlier this year, we wrote about how today’s far-left is breaking Saul Alinsky’s indispensable Rules for Radicals. For the center-left to effectively engage with the far-left, some rules are needed.
Here are some potential guidelines:
Be truthful. Don’t fudge the facts or reject political reality — even when it flies in the face of what you wish were true. Be aware of your own motivated reasoning and use objective facts when making an argument. If you don’t have hard evidence to back your claims about what works (or doesn’t work) in politics, don’t make them.
Draw distinctions to educate voters: Distinctions help voters decide who to vote for, making it clear which candidates stand for what. The clearer the distinctions between the far-left and the mainstream, the simpler it will be to persuade swing voters to cast their ballots for Democrats.
Structure conflict that elevates untenable far-left positions: Far-left groups want to shrink the party in order to achieve ideological purity (AOC has explicitly said that Democrats are “too big of a tent”) and avoid competing for the hearts and minds of mainstream Americans. In order to project a brand that can win left-skeptical voters in the middle, mainstream Democrats must highlight and draw contrast between themselves and the excesses of the far-left.
Keep your eyes on the prize. That’s beating Republicans — and that means it’s important to recognize that we’re all on the same team, despite the fact that the far-left rarely approaches politics this way.
Stoop down to their level of vitriol. Many of today’s most effective and visible operatives in Democratic politics have been attacked viciously by online mobs of Bernie Bros. In critiquing the far-left, it’s important to refrain from that kind of vitriol. Don’t be mean.
Draw distinctions just to get attention for attention’s sake. In today’s political environment, there are plenty of incentives for “attention politicians” to drum up an endless supply of conflict for their audiences online and on cable news. By generating a reliable influx of clicks and cash, this practice creates a virtuous cycle for the candidates but a vicious cycle for democracy.
Teach the Children
In the 1990’s, a singer shared words of wisdom on the track Umbilical Cord to the Future:
“The television, the babysitter, the radio cannot raise your children!
Anything you want the children to know, you must teach them!
You must teach them!
If you do not teach, they will not know.
They will not know!”
It may not be the TV or radio anymore — but MSNBC, Twitter, and TikTok will not teach the (mostly) young adults about the need to refrain from pushing the Democratic Party away from the voters in the middle who hold the key to preserving democracy. Jim Clyburn can, Lis Smith can, and Tim Ryan can.
The rationale for engaging in constructive conflict with the far-left is clear. And the rules to approach such engagement will lead to more unity, victory, and, ultimately, progress.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. So listen to Sister Souljah: if you do not teach, they will not know.
Subscribe to The Welcome Party for more Big Tent analysis