Originally Published July 24, 2017
This week, the New Republic published two very challenging and illuminating pieces exploring the future of left politics. In one, The Return of Monopoly, Matt Stoller examines the staggering growth of monopoly power in American society. In the other, The Dirtbag Left and the Problem of Dominance Politics, Jeet Heer targets the tone of the old left revivalist of the “Dirtbag left.” Both come from an ostensible left place, but we cannot understand the goals of the left and the shackles that must be shook without putting both into context.
I have been a reader of Heer’s writings in the New Republic for some time now. Having been a big fan of the newest version of the comparatively ancient liberal journal of record after the boomer old guard of the magazine exited with the journal’s turn from print editions to an online only collection of essays and analysis. This is not to say I didn’t come to Heer’s criticism of the Dirtbag Left’s vanguard “Chapo Trap House” with a heavy dose of skepticism, as this is the 7052nd article examining Chapo and their “leadership” of a new kind of leftism. Just look in the Washington Post today for yet another examination. It’s as though the mainstream media is explaining this new leftism to my MSNBC die hard dad; which is usually my job. Alternatively, Heer’s analysis comes with less historicism and more liberal finger wagging.
In Heer’s piece, he intensely examines the “weird twitter” transgressive humor of Chapo, and their relationship between their myriad of liberal and conservative targets, such as Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, Trump and Richard Spencer. Heer attempts to equate this discourse on stylistic grounds with the swamp monster style of your neighborhood Kekistani Pepe the Frog alt-right troll. In describing the tone and messaging of Chapo, Heer describes it as an inverse of the only decent moment of political messaging that came out of the 2016 Democratic National Convention: “when they go low, we go to the gutter.”
Heer’s piece hinges on the concept of “Dominance Politics;” which, he takes from Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall’s analysis of the Republican presidential primary race. This analytical lens highlights the ways in which political actors will use tactics, like insult, to separate the “dominated from the dominant.” The claim is that in this mode of ‘dominance politic,’ there are winners and losers; and more importantly, the winner lets the losers know they have lost. I am tempted to just repost much of Nathan Robinson’s reaction to Heer’s suppositions, but his title effectively says it all: “Politics is a Conquest of Domination.” This concept of dominance, of winning and capitulation is built into the core of democracy. What is majority rule if it doesn’t mean that the minority has lost? Within the realm of modern center left politics, these defining aspects of democracy are seen as an immoral and profane good. This notion explains much of the center-left’s inability to push back against the rightward march of the national political debate that has been present for the past 40 years. When you only fight the battle on the front of civility and norms, you are giving up huge stretches of territory to be ideologically strip-mined. This is a similar dynamic to the online culture wars of the early 2010’s examined in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies.
To Heer, Chapo and their compatriots across the left, are playing with fire by using “dominance politics” tactics. Chapo host, Will Meneker, claims that liberal-centrists need to “bend the knee” to the left-progressives within the Democratic party coalition. On particular issues, this phrasing made many in the Alt-Center clutch their pearls, and even attempted to make into a sexist comment. The comment is obviously rooted in the medieval practice of fealty represented in Game of Thrones, one of the biggest shows on TV. Sure this language might not be the softly innocuous language that defines much of liberal discourse (America is already great!), but this is hardly calling for personal injury against their foes or any disturbance beyond Jonathan Chait’s mentions tab on Twitter.
Heer exposes his and, to an extent, the entire modern center left ideological problem, near the end of his article. Heer claims that politics is, “about persuasion and coalition building”. Heer is right about half of that statement, as I have written about in a previous piece about the 2017 Chicago Dyke March. However, the liberal obsession with a particular mode persuasion has hidden the true engine of politics: power and the use thereof. Liberals, like the professional class leadership of the Democratic party, have known this truth when it comes to policing their own left flank. From the infamous “Sister Souljah” moment for Bill Clinton where he scored political points for distancing himself from the Bernie Sanders of the 80’s, Rev. Jesse Jackson, to the hippie punching of anti-war activists before the Iraq War. In these moments, were the Jeet Heer’s and Jonathan Chait’s of that era making the arguments about coalitions and persuasion, or were they saying that African-Americans and leftist had “nowhere else to go.”
Heer says that, “derision is only useful for one half of politics,” defeating one’s enemies, but not attacking one’s allies. It is a rather convenient rejoinder to hear at this point in left-wing political history, especially when one puts a very recent historical moment into context: 2009. In 2009, the Democrats had a slight but complete control over the major seats of federal electoral power: the house, the senate, and the presidency. The world was recovering from the worst financial disaster since 1929, Obama had record high approval ratings, and the time was ripe for real reform of healthcare and finance. Instead of pushing for for single-payer healthcare and a breaking up the massive financial institutions that broke the global economy in 2008, we got the easily dismantled Wall Street reform of Dodd-Frank and Obamacare, an echo of Massachucett’s Romenycare with the bonus of a medicaid expansion. Without discourse, regardless one’s style, the Democratic Party will never push farther than their financial base let’s them.
This is beyond just personal grievances and tone policing. The buffoonery and passion shown by Chapo and their fellow “dirtbag” left travelers can prove to be an excellent testing ground for the important battles ahead. When explicitly left groups like Our Revolution and DSA push for Medicare-For-All or primary Democratic candidates for the 2018 elections, the center left establishment of the Democratic party will call for a civil and genteel abdication. Look at how large portions of the Democratic leadership reacted to Bernie Sanders. Sanders dared to make sure that Hillary had some kind of actual challenge in the 2016 presidential primary, bringing in huge numbers of previously disillusioned voters to the Democratic Party and helping prepare the eventual nominee for the general election. Centrist liberals returned this challenge with the calls of sexism and racism towards arguably the most progressive senator in the country.
The left should be wary of falling into the trap of elevating mere civility over political ends. This is the problem with “West Wing” liberalism. When primarying bad candidates, liberals will say the left is being mean and “now is not the time” to fight within the party. Populist political actors, lacking the privilege of political power, will always be told now is not the right time. The center left, those in control of the party, want their challengers to voluntarily disarm.
Now is the time we define what the Democratic party is. If a growing monopoly of corporate poweris going to make us “bend the knee” to global capitalism, the least we can do is figure out who is on our side.
Centrist liberals have been dominating the left for generations at this point. It is through the democratizing power of new media and alternative funding apparatuses that the left has a chance to change the debate. By self editing out of fear of centrist scorn, the left cannot prosper. Politics is, to quote Christopher Hooks’s “Stakes is High”, the way we distribute pain. Unlike the social constructions of decorum or civility, pain in the form of hunger, illness, and homelessness is material and undeniably real.
The left can take being called jerks if it means bringing a better future for the masses of people teetering on the edge of poverty and bankruptcy. The left can deal with being called assholes if it means tearing at the root of White Supremacy. The left can deal with being called dirtbags if it means fighting for a fair shake in the workplace. To this member of the “Dirtbag Left” there is nothing more civil than fighting for what you believe in.