Some quick thoughts on 'Why can't the left win?'

At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has a piece today titled “Why can’t the left win?” His goal, according to the subhead, is to provide some constructive criticism so the left can become a more healthy opposition party. Toward that end, he offers seven specific critiques of how the left is behaving badly in the age of Trump.


I’m taking it as a given that Friedersdorf is sincere about his desire to be constructive and I think many of his points are ones people on the right would agree with if stated a bit differently. What struck me as I read it was that he doesn’t really delve into the one question that seems most obvious: Why? Why does the left behave the way it does even if, as Friedersdorf suggests, it’s counter-productive to achieving their goals.

Here are the seven areas Friedersdorf lists as needing improvement in his piece. I’m using his actual heading and brief quotes to give the gist of what he’s saying. Read his full piece to see if I’m being fair to his arguments.

  1. The Limits of Opprobrium and Stigma – “It was and remains extremely counterproductive for the left to treat Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’…”
  2. Forget What Is “Normal” – Quoting Noah Millman: “Whoever says that Trump shouldn’t be ‘normalized’ is implying that somebody — the press, perhaps? — is in a position to decide what is normal, and to inform everybody else of that fact. But that’s not how norms work…”
  3. Stop Rejecting the Ordinary Work of Politics – Quoting Freddie DeBoer: “you can’t grow a mass party when the daily operation of your movement involves finding more and more heretics to ostracize from the community.”
  4. Call Out Hate, Not Faux Pas – “the left must take care, as the universe of things deemed problematic continues to expand, that it doesn’t stray into enforcing elite manners against people who mean no harm and harbor no hate when violating them.”
  5. Make Organizing About Effectiveness and Winning – Quoting DeRay McKesson: “We have started to police people’s authenticity by their proximity to trauma, not their proximity to the work”
  6. Participate in Local Politics – “Such is the norm at lots of colleges: Student activists focus on campus events rather than local politics.”
  7. The Perils of Privilege – Partially quoting Phoebe Maltz Bovy: “There are myriad ways of addressing injustice that don’t end up ‘inaccurately categorizing huge swaths of humanity under the haves umbrella.'”

Forget for the moment that this is the description of a political framework that involves millions of people. Pretend this is a description of one person. What can you say about that person, at least as regards their faults? Put as bluntly as possible they are (1) condescending, (2) controlling, (3) accusatory, (4) uncharitable, (5) self-involved, (6) grandstanders eager to (7) condemn their fellow citizens. And I would add at least one more criticism: they are often violent. The left has repeatedly shown since January that it is willing to tolerate and wink at violence when it serves their goals.

I’m certain Friedersdorf (and those he’s quoting) would never summarize their argument so bluntly, and that’s fine. I’m not suggesting this is a charitable interpretation. However, I do think people who aren’t especially political look at call-out culture and have a reaction to what they perceive as the underlying character of the movement. And that’s a simple mechanism, not an extended argument, though the results may be the same. In short, if this is where progressive politics continues to head, the left will continue to lose.

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