Bernie, Kamala, and the Left’s War of Mutually Assured Destruction

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The flame wars of the left are erupting again in depressingly familiar ways. Ironically, even as the institutional Democratic Party is demonstrating a commitment to more economic populist stances through its “Better Deal” messaging aimed at working families, the social media warriors of the left and center-left are determined to burn one another to the ground for control of the party, no matter the cost. At a time when solidarity is needed most to face an array of outside threats ranging from the horrors of the Trump Administration to the apathy and distrust of ever-larger swaths of the electorate, the pundits and social media wannabes of the left seem more intent than ever on pointless division. The path forward is obvious, but neither side seems willing to accept it.

The latest conflagration was ignited in part by Washington Monthly alum Ryan Cooper’s piece establishing the reasons for economic populist distrust of establishment favorite 2020 hopefuls Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Deval Patrick. Cooper made some valid points about the histories of all three candidates that make many Occupy-aligned Democrats shudder: Booker’s defense of Wall Street and charter schools, Harris’ failure to charge now-Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for his crimes with One West Bank, and Deval Patrick’s employment as managing director with Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, for starters. These are not minor complaints.

The obvious problem, of course, is that in targeting black candidates Booker, Harris and Patrick specifically, Cooper only gives further fuel to those who claim that Sanders-aligned economic progressives have racist motivations–or at least that they are tone-deaf and poor allies on matters of identity and social justice. That the writers of these critiques tend to be predominantly white and male certainly doesn’t help, either. Regardless of the motivations, it’s self-defeating for the democratic socialist left to take this particular tack: as our own Martin Longman pointed out, economic populists will not win the the argument within the party if they openly antagonize not only the wealthy donor base but also older and minority voters.

On the other hand, there is a substantial faction of establishment players who, rather than seeking to repair and mitigate the causes the conflict in the Sanders-Clinton primary, are eagerly hoping to perpetuate it. They see the young, insurgent, aggressively anti-Wall Street wing as illegitimate interlopers, easily propagandized dupes, and overprivileged “alt left” bigots. The large number of women and people of color who are part of the Sanders coalition are erased and dismissed in often ugly ways. The influential partisans in center-left think tanks and media organizations who take this position seem to believe that democratic socialists will simply disappear into the woodwork if they are aggressively dragged and marginalized, allowing them to resume conducting business as usual within the party. This would be a mistake: like the Dean and Obama waves before them, Sanders Democrats have been sweeping into leadership positions in state and local Democratic organizations all across the country, and have no intention of going away quietly.

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