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The American socialist worldview is just totally broken (repost)
Plus a new update showing how right I was.
In the week after Hamas’ attack on Israel, I wrote a very frustrated post about how Western leftists, many of whom rushed to express solidarity with Hamas, had forfeited much of the moral high ground in American society. That post has now become one of the most popular in the history of this blog. But it left some people confused. Who are “leftists”? The DSA, certainly, but what about BLM? Or Bernie Sanders or AOC? Is Biden a “leftist”? Who exactly was I condemning, when so many prominent Democratic and progressive leaders had stepped forward to condemn Hamas?
It’s a fair question. If you don’t follow online political debates closely (and honestly, why would you?), the word “leftist” may not seem all that different from the word “progressive”, or even “liberal”. And even some people who do follow those debates don’t know exactly where a writer like me draws the line. If you’re going to complain about a whole group of people, it’s important to be clear about who’s in that group.
In fact, there’s no official definition of who’s a “leftist” — they certainly don’t use that term for themselves. But in the years since Bernie Sanders’ movement exploded on the national scene in 2016, it’s been intuitively clear to me that many of his most ardent supporters cared about a somewhat different set of issues, talked differently about politics, and got their information from a somewhat different set of sources than most progressives. They deeply resented the Democratic party establishment and were always talking about overthrowing it and taking over the party. They seemed to care a lot more about student loans and abolishing out-of-pocket health costs. They were often opposed to new housing construction. They were more likely to call themselves “socialist”, and to have admiration for Hugo Chavez. They seemed much more focused on foreign policy (especially after Biden stole some of their thunder on economic issues). They constantly called American an “empire”.
Above all, they seemed obsessed with Palestine, far more than regular progressives. There’s nothing inherently socialist about the Palestinian cause, and there are plenty of other peoples out there who are also oppressed and who also deserve their own country. But the people I came to think of as “Western leftists” elevated Palestine far above all of those others in their pantheon of causes. It was the one thing that most clearly distinguished them from progressives. I never quite figured out why.
Now I think I’m starting to understand a bit better. In a post about why he quit the DSA, Maurice Isserman explains that Palestine became a wedge issue that extremist “entryists” used to muscle out more moderate members:
As the new hard-line caucuses gained influence, the issue of Palestine became ever more important in DSA’s internal political culture…[Israel’s repression of Palestinians] doesn’t account for the singularly important role of Palestine in DSA’s rather short list of international concerns, completely overshadowing the attention paid, for example, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or to the rights of other oppressed peoples, like the Kurdish Muslims, or China’s Uyghur Muslims. Concern for Palestine, entirely legitimate in itself, also served other purposes for DSA’s new sectarian leadership, furnishing a convenient stick to beat DSA’s moderate wing if it wasn’t willing to embrace the most extreme positions on the Palestinian question—up to and including denying Israel’s right to continued existence…
Starting as far back as the 2017 national convention, chants of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free” began to be heard at DSA gatherings, and support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel became a litmus test within the organization for political purity. For the sectarians, discrediting elected DSAers who fail that test helps to move the organization closer to the desired break with the Democratic Party.
This makes a lot of sense. Palestine wasn’t just a liberation struggle that the Democratic establishment had deemphasized because of the U.S. alliance with Israel; it was also a perfect wedge issue, because principled (and thus moderate) socialists would be turned off by Hamas’ clear genocidal intent.
But even before Hamas’ attack on October 7, it had become clear to me that something was broken in the Western leftist’s worldview. A lot of little things added up — their willingness to blame NATO for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, their obsession with unworkable economic policies that seemed crafted to provoke pushback from establishment Democrats, their insistence that America is an oligarchy instead of a true democracy, their embrace of NIMBYism, their flirtation with degrowth and with fringe economic theories, and so on. In April of 2022 I wrote a post expressing exasperation with the whole American leftist project. I didn’t even mention Palestine. But already, I knew something was off.
Anyway, here is that post, which I think has aged fairly well.
I was extremely annoyed to see Noam Chomsky urging Ukraine to make concessions to Russia, in a recent interview in Current Affairs:
I’m not criticizing Zelensky; he’s an honorable person and has shown great courage. You can sympathize with his positions. But you can also pay attention to the reality of the world. And that’s what it implies. I’ll go back to what I said before: there are basically two options. One option is to pursue the policy we are now following, to quote Ambassador Freeman again, to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. And yes, we can pursue that policy with the possibility of nuclear war. Or we can face the reality that the only alternative is a diplomatic settlement, which will be ugly—it will give Putin and his narrow circle an escape hatch…We know the basic framework is neutralization of Ukraine, some kind of accommodation for the Donbas region, with a high level of autonomy, maybe within some federal structure in Ukraine.
The arrogance of this kind of armchair quarterbacking is breathtaking — an American public intellectual dictating territorial and diplomatic concessions to Ukraine. Chomsky uses the word “we” to describe the parties that he imagines will make these concessions to Russia, but the first person pronoun is totally unwarranted — it is 100% Ukraine’s decision how much of their territory and their people to surrender to an invader who is engaging in mass murder, mass rape, and mass removal to concentration camps in the areas it has conquered. It is 0% Noam Chomsky’s decision.
It would be nice to think that Chomsky is just getting very old here (he’s 93!). But sadly, this is milder than things he’s done in the past. All the way back in 1977, he was playing down the Khmer Rouge’s culpability in the Cambodian Genocide:
What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered.
Meanwhile, Nathan J. Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs and the man who did the interview with Chomsky, has even more repellent perspectives on foreign policy. In a recent tweet, he asserted that U.S. defense spending constituted “plotting a genocide of Russian and Chinese people”:
The repellence of this perspective is an outlier, but socialists in general have not covered themselves in glory with their stances regarding Putin’s horrific and unprovoked Ukraine invasion. The international committee of the Democratic Socialists of America, for example, opposed military assistance to Ukraine (without which the country would probably have fallen), and also opposed sanctions on Russia. Alhough Bernie Sanders — the patron saint of the revived American socialist movement — has been quite good on the Ukraine war, Ilhan Omar and Cori Bush did join a gaggle of Trumpists in the House of Representatives to oppose a ban on imports of Russian fossil fuels. Writers at the socialist magazine Jacobin have continued to partly blame the U.S. and NATO for the war. And so on. Foreign policy analyst and Middle East expert Ibrahim al-Assil summed the situation up well in an exasperated thread shortly after the Russian invasion began:
(When he says “progressives”, he’s really talking about socialists; on the whole, Democratic voters are very strongly opposed to Putin, Russia, and the invasion.)
This is not to say, of course, that the socialist Left has been as bad as the Trumpist Right in this episode. It has not. But I would expect better of the socialists than of the rightists — or perhaps I should say that I would hope for better. That — and the fact that people who sympathize with socialism are probably a lot more likely to read my blog than people who sympathize with Trumpism — is why I’m taking the time to vent my exasperation with socialists instead of ranting on and on about why Tucker Carlson & co. are bad.
Before the war hit, socialists were sort of pivoting to foreign policy. Their domestic economic agenda had been mostly superseded by the Biden administration’s bold initiatives — and when those bold initiatives were rejected by Joe Manchin and received only lukewarm support in the polls, it showed that a President Sanders would have fared no better. Foreign policy, however, is an area where there’s a lot more agreement between mainstream liberals and conservatives, and so presents a more attractive wedge issue that socialists can use to denounce establishment Democrats. And the battle against the Iraq War was one of the main things that revived the American socialist movement, so it made sense to play to their strengths.
Then two things derailed that pivot. The first was Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, which put an end to America’s post-9/11 “forever wars” in Muslim countries. Next, the war in Ukraine cast the U.S. and NATO firmly in the good-guy role, swooping in to give the plucky Ukrainians the tools to defend themselves against imperialist aggression and atrocity. Suddenly, socialists’ pseudo-Chomskian framing of foreign policy — that the world’s wars are caused by U.S. imperialism driven by manufactured consent and the greedy military-industrial complex — looked out of touch with reality, even to socialists in Europe.
And it is out of touch with reality. But it’s not the only part of the socialist worldview that has veered dangerously into fantasy-land in the years since Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign breathed new life into the movement.
At the center of the new American socialist worldview was a “theory of change”. It was almost impossible not to talk to socialists between 2016 and 2020 and not hear this phrase. In purely electoral terms, the socialist “theory of change” seemed to be that Bernie Sanders held a unique ability to unite traditional progressive constituencies with White working class voters of the kind who switched from Obama to Trump, all while energizing the youth to come out and vote.
But Bernie was simply unable to do this. In 2020 he lost the White working class voters who had flirted with him in 2016, while never really managing to connect with the Black voters who form the core of the Democratic primary electorate. Nor did the youth come out to vote. When most primary voters coalesced around Joe Biden on Super Tuesday and afterwards, Bernie supporters tried to craft a narrative that they had been stabbed in the back by an establishment conspiracy, instead of simply being rejected by the voters. The narrative did not take.
Another part of the “theory of change” was the idea of “shifting the Overton Window”. Instead of its traditional definition as the boundaries of public discussion, socialists reimagined the Overton Window to be the public’s perception of what constitutes a moderate and reasonable policy. The idea was that by proposing very dramatic and extreme plans like Bernie’s “Medicare For All” plan — which would have effectively abolished private health insurance and eliminated all forms of cost sharing, measures that go far beyond the systems used by European social democracies — socialists could then get a more moderate single-payer or public option system as a compromise. A few socialists painted Obamacare — the most significant health care reform since the creation of Medicare itself — as mass murder, simply because it wasn’t Bernie’s plan. This was a theory of negotiation — demand more up front, and you’ll get more in the end, even if you don’t get everything you ask for.
This theory also failed. The phrase “Medicare For All” polled consistently well, but when the specifics of the plan were explained, poll numbers tended to drop off sharply. Ultimately, the socialists got neither their preferred health care plan nor any sort of compromise at all — health care was simply de-emphasized by the Biden administration and the Democratic Congress, and no one except socialists seemed to care. The simple truth is that the Democrats already spent a huge amount of political capital on one big health care reform, and the nation was not in the mood to repeat the trick. The socialists asked for the moon and got nothing at all.
The third part of American socialists’ “theory of change” was a theory of power. Socialists allege that democracy in America is bought and paid for by the rich, and that thus we live in an oligarchy instead of a true democracy. (This bears more of a resemblance to the Progressive anti-corruption movement of early 20th century America than to a class-based Marxist analysis, showing that the American socialist movement’s true roots are syncretic, but I digress.)
This may or may not be true, but as of now the idea that America is an oligarchy is a faith-based belief rather than anything grounded in evidence. The idea is often touted as a scientific fact, but in fact the empirical support relies entirely on one rather mediocre political science paper by Gilens & Page that doesn’t actually say what people think it says and is contradicted by most of the rest of the literature. I wrote about this back in December:
There are many more problems with the paper, so you can go read Matthews’ entire article, and the three critique papers. But the statistics quoted in the excerpt above are already utterly damning for the Gilens/Page result. The whole model has almost no explanatory power at all — an R-squared of 0.074, for a model with that many variables, is nothing. And the fact that Gilens & Page’s data shows that policy outcomes tend to agree with the middle class as much as they agree with the rich completely destroys the claim in the tweet above — i.e. that “elected officials make policy to benefit the richest ten percent of the country to the exclusion of the needs of everyone else.”
This theory started showing its limits when Bernie was defeated by Biden despite having a much bigger war chest. But the message didn’t penetrate the wall of faith. When socialist candidate Nina Turner lost a Democratic primary campaign to an opponent she outspent 2 to 1, she claimed that she didn’t really lose because the election had been “manipulated” by “evil money”.
In other words, this theory of power and oligarchy looks mainly like excuse-making — a way to explain socialists’ lack of popular appeal as the machinations of rich power brokers in an imagined smoky back room. Excuses like this might salve wounded egos, but they don’t tend to lead to self-reflection.
But it’s not just socialists’ theories of change and power that are broken. On specific public policy issues, they are far too eager to embrace faddish intellectual cults offering magical solutions.
One such example is “degrowth”. Though more popular in Europe than in the U.S., the idea that the world must address climate change by radically curtailing living standards has gained some credence here as well. This idea is dangerous nonsense, as more and more commentators on the Left are beginning to realize. There’s no planning structure that could manage a global degrowth agenda. But even if it were possible, the sacrifices in human welfare required would make it a non-starter in all the countries that matter. (Also, the “scientific” literature supporting degrowth is of extremely low quality.) Practically speaking, the only function of degrowth is to make environmentalism hated and reviled.
A second, even more worrying example is Left-NIMBYism. In response to the nationwide housing affordability crisis, many socialists across the country have embraced the theory that building more housing increases rents and causes gentrification. This is obviously a silly idea to apply at the national scale — if you don’t build houses for people, they won’t have anywhere to live. But even at the local level, the evidence is strongly against Left-NIMBYism — building more housing holds down rent and usually decreases the displacement of low-income renters from a fashionable neighborhood. But as in so many things, evidence doesn’t dent the socialist worldview — in a recent article, Nathan J. Robinson made the farcical argument that instead of building new housing we should simply build new cities.
Now the Left-NIMBYism is beginning to extend to alternative energy as well. Although the Sunrise Movement — a darling of America’s new socialists — started out as a promoter of the pro-growth Green New Deal, the organization’s local chapters now routinely oppose clean energy projects. It’s possible that Sunrise is beginning to follow in the footsteps of older legacy environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, who tend to equate environmentalism with a lack of development. This is, of course, extremely deleterious to the fight against climate change, which requires rapid deployment of green energy everywhere in the country. The organization’s foray into decrying high gasoline prices certainly isn’t a good sign.
This has become a pattern; time and again, America’s socialists spend their intellectual and political capital on these vials of snake oil. It was only through the timely intervention of more sensible socialist writers that the movement was saved from going all-in on the pseudo-economics cult called MMT. As for the opposition to Ukraine’s self-defense, it smacks of pure anti-American “campism” — the idea that anyone who opposes America can’t be all that bad, even if it’s a rightist dictator like Putin.
Sure, there are some good ideas in the new socialist movement, but they too often get lost and drowned out by the cacophony of fantasy. It feels like America’s socialists are piecing together a sort of extended universe — a fantasy worldview as potent and immersive as anything dished up by Fox News, which offers the illusion of internal consistency but is actually just an outgrowth of what historian Richard Hoftstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”.
Which is a shame, for several reasons. Most importantly, the U.S. needs a movement dedicated to fighting economic inequality, which has gotten utterly out of control. Within my lifetime it feels like we’ve become far more of a class society, and socialism was traditionally the movement that fought for the rights and power of the working class. Even beyond that narrow imperative, socialist movements in Western societies have often provided important sources of dissent and independent thought. Even the subcultures I love, like punk rock, owe much to the (sometimes sublimated or submerged) dream of socialism.
I would like to think that the new American socialist movement’s forays into the ridiculous and the reprehensible are simply growing pains. But looking at the even starker failures of Corbyn’s movement in the UK and Melenchon’s movement in France, it’s difficult to be optimistic about this. Yes, about half of young Americans say they like socialism, but this won’t necessarily stop the movement from turning into a kooky fringe over time — as an example, libertarian views in America are quite common, but almost no Americans identify as political libertarians. I can easily envision socialism following a similar path.