We Need a Class War, Not a Culture War

A reply to Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey.

Democratic presidential candidates former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Tom Steyer speak after the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Win McNamee / Getty

With the defeat of the Bernie Sanders campaign, numerous postmortems have attempted to diagnose what went wrong and what could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve been.

Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey’s American Affairs essay, “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The Collapse of the Sanders Campaign and the ‘Fusionist’ Left,” aims to give a definitive reply, casting much of the blame on campaign mistakes and a fealty to left-wing cultural politics.

I agree that the Left has all sorts of alienating cultural practices, the product of years of insularity and a distance from the day-to-day demands and struggles of workers. But I’m not convinced that these factors were a primary, or even a significant, cause behind Bernie’s defeat.

While feigning a kind of no-nonsense analysis, Nagle and Tracey’s account of “what went wrong” is, at root, a cry for better messaging and more responsible leadership. It’s a grand narrative which puts a clear protagonist on the center stage of world history: intellectuals, media professionals, and other members of the chattering class.

Working people themselves — their limited choices and complex relationships with the Democratic Party — are given only passing mention in Nagle and Tracey’s essay. Larger historical and structural factors, from the decline of class voting all across the developed world to the exceptional weakness of the US left, are not seriously discussed. And somehow the only social force in world history that has ever delivered victory to left-wing political movements, organized labor, is not mentioned even once in their 10,000-word opus.

Twitter, however, takes center stage.

This is where Tracey and Nagle’s narrative falls apart. And where they have far more in common with their “woke” antagonists than they would ever admit.

This Was No Bitter Defeat

The authors open fire on those who would hide behind a belief that Bernie “never could have won.” To them, it’s nothing more than a pathetic excuse for bad leadership and insufficient will. They accuse Sanders adviser David Sirota and Jacobin, in particular, for using this excuse as a way to avoid thoughtful engagement with the campaign’s failure.

I don’t think that’s a fair or accurate account — and notably, Nagle and Tracey do not link or cite even one article that makes this claim.

Many Sanders supporters and volunteers, myself included, understood from the start that the odds were stacked against us. But we nevertheless believed that victory just might still be possible — you play the cards you’re dealt, after all.

If you asked me in 2015, I would have told you that a left-wing presidential candidate could only succeed in their campaign (and later in their ability to implement reforms) if they emerged from a vibrant union movement buttressed by mass political organizations.

Bernie turned that formula on its head. Instead of emerging out of a vibrant labor movement from below, he aimed to catalyze a popular force from above –a grassroots army of volunteers, small donors, and voters that just might get him over the finish line and into the White House.

A left-winger charting a path to the presidency with virtually no visible left, was a daring maneuver — and it almost worked.

Seen in this light, Nagle and Tracey’s suggestion that the campaign must “be understood as a bitter defeat — a defeat not just for the Sanders campaign but for the whole of the contemporary American Left” is overwrought, bordering on hysteria.

What they don’t understand is that the Sanders campaign wasn’t an attempt to save the American left. It was an attempt to build one.

Talk about “bitter defeats” would be apt for something like the UK Labour Party’s devastating loss in 1983, when a deeply unpopular Margaret Thatcher government was challenged by a mobilized working-class party with a left-wing program and an army of volunteers. Labour maintained close ties to mass working-class organizations, made their appeals directly to working-class voters, had the trust and support of a powerful union movement, and already occupied the position of junior partner in British democracy. Yet even with all these advantages the party still lost miserably — a truly bitter defeat that precipitated decades of agony for the Labour left.

The US left went into the Sanders 2020 campaign with nothing like any of these advantages — in truth, it barely registered as a national political force, with less than two percent of Congressional seats held by Bernie allies. The Sanders campaigns did far more to demonstrate the potential of future left-wing institutions than to damage actual ones, since before 2015 significant left-wing institutions simply did not exist.

Electoral defeat in these circumstances may be a disappointment, but it is far from an existential blow. The real question is not “why didn’t Bernie win,” but how did he get so close?

Yes, Sanders Was Suffocated By the Mass Media

Another explanation that Nagle and Tracey reject is that Sanders was the helpless victim of “a brutal corporate media determined to destroy him.” As if the very concept of a multibillion-dollar for-profit media industry was little more than a left-wing conspiracy theory, they ask:

If the corpo­rate media was so singularly decisive in orchestrating negative percep­tions of Sanders, how is it that he managed to score these public opinion plaudits prior to 2020, when his national favorability tanked at the ignoble conclusion of the campaign?

Nagle and Tracey are correct that the corporate media failed to tarnish Sanders’ reputation entirely. But was simple character assassination really their aim? A more reasonable view is that they sought first to limit Sanders’s airtime — very successfully, for the first half of the campaign — and then, as he gained steam in the winter, to paint him as unelectable in a general election. This explains both how Sanders favorability maintained consistently high marks (voters didn’t see much of him but what they saw they liked) and how he was ultimately unable to make his case early that he was more electable than Biden.

That electability was so central is also owed to the liberal media’s unprecedented singular focus on the evil of Donald Trump. This was the first time where Democratic voters insisted that “electability” trumped “issues” in their primary calculations. The authors later admit this themselves: “Voters’ priority, thanks to the propaganda onslaught in which the Left enthusiastically participated, may have been finding the ‘safest’ candidate to remove Trump as quickly and painlessly as possible.”

Still, Nagle and Tracey suggest that because Trump’s negative media attention didn’t ruin his candidacy the same must be true for Sanders. But Trump and Sanders are hardly comparable in their relationship to the corporate media. Trump has not one but two national television news stations with a mass audience, on top of a professional social media propaganda army that operates 24/7 spreading lies and capitalizing on resentment. Not only does Bernie not have a single television news station in his pocket, he barely had any television ads.

Even on social media, which Nagle and Tracey depict as the terrain of invincible Sanders propagandists, Bernie’s presence is obviously overwhelmed by Trump, who has five to eight times as many followers on Twitter and Facebook. Even the smaller figures in right-wing media — fringe types like Mike Cernovich to Bill Mitchell, far from regular guests on Fox News — have followings that dwarf the podcasters and poster-kings in the Sanders orbit.

As for the liberal media, it’s true that they relentlessly criticize Trump’s lies, but they never go beyond this. MSNBC, CNN, and the major networks seldom interrogate the meaning of policies or the functions of government. They cover only the most headline-grabbing and petty catfights between politicians or whatever culture-war topic seems to be trending on Twitter. As a result, the media play a much more insidious role in American public life than the authors are willing to acknowledge, and the effects of that are felt before and beyond the bookends of the campaign cycle.

Since Ronald Reagan tore up the fairness doctrine, and after the drive for profit radically reorganized the newsroom, contemporary political media have sorted into two distinct lanes: right-wing and nominally non-partisan (or as we understand them: liberal). In their hunt for profits and larger audiences news producers seek the sensational and scandalous. The partisan media throws mud on their short-term political opponents, while their corporate conglomerates donate to both major parties to shore up their longer-term aims. Both sides do their best to legitimize the function of big business and delegitimize the idea of a muscular welfare state. No one today believes in the parties’ ability to wield the vast powers of the federal government for the benefit of the general public.

The overall result is to tarnish the average worker’s faith in government as a whole and to polarize the media landscape along sharply partisan lines — thus when liberal outlets began their relentless assault on Trump, Democrats “trust” in the mass media increased as Republican trust decreased. In this environment, it’s easy to see how Trump was significantly less damaged by liberal media attacks and how disaffected working-class voters can be attracted to a kind of apolitical non-partisan “throw the bums out” populism. Crucially though, if the predominant image of government in the media is an image of failure and dysfunction (no matter who is in charge) then right-wingers can comfortably ensure that the image meets reality.

Such a landscape hardly benefits a candidate hell-bent on proving the welfare state can not only function but that it could help create a more democratic society — one that we, as Americans, have never really known.

Rural Voters Didn’t Show Up… For Anyone

Rejecting the media critique, Nagle and Tracey identify a weakness in Sanders’ 2020 operation that they credit for his overall performance: his evaporating support in the Midwest. They claim:

Bernie’s strong performance among select demo­graphics —rural and midwestern voters in particular—[…] demonstrated that he would’ve been the superior general election nominee. But in 2020, those very same demographics abandoned him in droves.

Yet to whom did these voters flee? It’s an uncomfortable fact, but it was Pete Buttigieg who captured the largest share of them in both Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s hardly possible to imagine that Buttigieg was misread by rural voters as some great populist, instead it seems clear that they were drawn to his clean-cut Obama-like speeches, close ties to the party elite, and inoffensive policy agenda.

Glowing news coverage of Mayor Pete was beamed into every Iowa and New Hampshire living room, and his own television advertising operation targeted many of the Obama-Obama-Trump counties to great effect. Nagle and Tracey claim Bernie’s fixation on “the young, supremely ‘progressive’ and identity-fixated Left” cost him here. Yet it was Buttigieg who made every attempt to court younger voters with an awkward literal song-and-dance routine, and a robotic politically correct rhetorical style.

And even after the field thinned to just Biden and Bernie, do Nagle and Tracey think that older workers in Michigan thought Biden was an enemy of finance and free trade? Did they see in the Bernie campaign little more than a horde of Twitter anime avatars demanding #FullCommunism?

Or did those voters just simply believe that the Vice President to the most popular national politician in more than half a century was, in fact, the most “electable”?

I suspect Bernie’s weakness with rural voters has less to do with his failure to wear an American flag pin (which he also did not wear in 2016), than deeper shifts in the structure of American politics.

The larger story here is not that Buttigieg and Biden stole Bernie’s base, but that rural voters are not enamored with any candidates that have a “D” next to their name. And they are turning out in fewer numbers each election.

For years, in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, Democrats have run up big Presidential vote tallies but failed to win state house majorities, due to their persistent weakness in rural areas. Many, including centrist liberal commentators like Mark Lilla, will chalk up this failure to identity politics.

The truth is, however, that the Democrats have long had a tradition of “boll weevils” and “Blue Dogs” who have rigorously avoided any concessions to liberal cultural positions (while equally eschewing anything like a social-democratic agenda) and even these candidates — flag-pins galore — struggle to hold onto their seats these days. In 2009 Blue Dogs, representing mainly rural conservative districts, accounted for 54 seats in Congress, more than 20 percent of the entire Democratic Caucus at that time. By 2018, their numbers dwindled to just 24 or about 10 percent of the congressional party.

American decline — in manufacturing, living standards, equality, unionization, infrastructure — has simply hit rural areas harder. These voters are likely more disaffected than any others, and they are physically harder to reach by standard campaign tactics. I agree that we should drop the alienating “woke” rhetoric which only amplifies this disastrous trend, but turning out rural working-class voters will take much more than savvy messaging.

Until left-wing candidates have the kinds of organizations — rooted in a revivified labor movement —  that can reach people year-round with credible appeals and instil in them a belief that the federal government can and should rebuild the economic foundations of neglected regions, these voters will likely remain elusive.

It’s another enormous structural hurdle so inconvenient for Nagle and Tracey’s score-settling analysis that it’s not even mentioned.

The Place for What-Ifs

Political outcomes are not preordained, but it is foolish to expect to turn straw into gold with “the right messaging.” For Nagle and Tracey, Bernie’s path to victory was clear, until he was sabotaged by ultra-liberal activists and their left-wing enablers online, who together derailed “the greatest electoral opportunity for major social democratic reform likely to be seen in a generation.”

As someone who’s fairly skeptical of much of the online activist set, I wish I could agree. But such a conclusion just gives them way too much agency. Not unlike many of their enemies, the authors put far too much faith in the power of words and of social media.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t avoidable gaffes and strategic mistakes. I think that some of Sanders’ mid-level campaign staff were worse than incompetent. And I wholly agree with the authors’ assessment when they quote a source reporting on “shocking levels of ineptitude, complacency, waste, and even fraud in the organization.”

No doubt the presence of hacks and morons hurt our chances. But this was not a primary or even major cause of defeat. Because, as much as that narrative would comfort me, every campaign is filled with incompetent, lazy, political hacks, camp-counselor social climbers, and idiots. Joe Biden’s team was hardly a phalanx of seasoned political whiz-kids.

Trotskyism, broadly speaking, tends to place too much blame for political failure on a lack of political will from leaders. If only “misleaders” listened to the demands of the masses and didn’t shy away from confrontation maybe things would have turned out differently. Nagle and Tracey, far from Trotskyists themselves, fall into this same trap: naturally, if they were at the helm, they simply wouldn’t choose to fail. This kind of voluntarism makes it very easy to condemn political defeats, while suggesting an alternative path forward: put me in charge. The result is a blinkered tendency to read history as a succession of great leaders, an ideal perspective for fringe sectarians, isolated polemicists, and progressive NGO hustlers alike.

The reality is, if we were really on the cusp of victory — if we had the kind of organization necessary to win a majority of voters — the hyper-liberal opportunists would never have been able to worm their way into positions of influence in the first place. Their presence was only possible because of the absence of a politically self-conscious working-class organization writ large. If the Left primarily operated in a blue-collar milieu, and if the union movement was our home base of strength, the kind of nonsense the authors condemn would be squashed before it got off the ground.

Leave the Culture War Behind

Nagle and Tracey are right about one thing: If we want to win, we have to leave the culture war behind. But in their attempt to tie Bernie to the failures of hyper-liberalism, they don’t marshal much evidence. I think it’s more likely that most of the electorate saw Sanders, as David Frum characterized him, as “Left but not Woke” — a very different political figure than Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harris.

Regular Democratic voters almost always liked Biden and Bernie best — two of the candidates that consistently eschewed identitarian pandering. And Bernie’s economic platform was wildly popular, even among Biden voters. Of course, when a progressive economic platform is paired with hyper-liberal rhetoric, as with Warren, it sinks like a stone. But in a year when voters were unusually focused on the pragmatic question of electability, the  VP to the last two-term Democratic president beat out the Vermont outsider universally despised by party leaders and television anchors. This is not rocket science.

This might be cause for some optimism for the future: couldn’t we strive to capitalize on Bernie’s popular economic agenda and ditch the Left side of the culture war? Nagle and Tracey are pessimistic. No doubt, it is a challenge. Left-wing candidates and campaigns are currently held hostage by a toxic brew of alienating language, like the term “Latinx” (unpopular with Latinos themselves), fashionable maximalist slogans that make heavy use of the word “abolish,” and bizarre postures like Kirsten Gillibrand harping about her “white privilege.”

These are serious liabilities for any candidate (and countless articles were written about how the “wokest” candidates did the worst). But fortunately for us, left-wing candidates don’t adopt these stances because big money donors insist on them. Instead, insurgent candidates run on issues they think their base will find it appealing. Therefore, shifting campaign rhetoric away from the kind of language that Nagle and Tracey rightly identify as alienating is possible, so long as we can prove that such appeals are unpopular among most social-democratically inclined working-class voters.

To me, this is an opportunity, not a death sentence for democratic socialists. Consider that the Left can avoid striking an ultra-liberal pose on culture, but the Center and the Right cannot as readily adopt a left-wing economic program — their donors won’t let them. For the Bidens and Trumps of the world, the culture war is a necessity, to divert and distract from the divide between the rich and the rest of us. For the Left, it’s a choice.

If Nagle and Tracey are correct that our chief problem is the activist frauds and alienating rhetoric, then we should rejoice. Those obstacles can be overcome and organized around. They are a consequence of weakness and alienation from a working-class milieu, but they are not permanent, endemic or structural features of American democratic political practice.

Counterfactual History

The limit of Nagle and Tracey’s analysis is demonstrated if we actually indulge in the counterfactuals their essay invokes. So, let’s imagine that Bernie avoided the activists, and that he successfully mimicked Biden’s rhetorical style. Let’s even imagine that by doing so he was able to win the nomination. He would enter a general election against a sitting president, who (as a result of Bernie’s success) would now have the backing of the entire business community, and, perhaps, the tacit endorsement of the leaderships of two political parties.

Worse, many of the upper-income so-called “Never Trump” Republicans and “Blue No Matter Who” Democrats would suddenly have a change of heart. A bleak prospect.

But while we are fantasizing, let’s say that even against all that Bernie harnessed the awesome power of infrequent voters and won the election. In order for his reform project to succeed, he would need sweeping sympathetic majorities in Congress, backed up by a powerful, highly mobilized labor movement, and allied mass political organizations that could credibly threaten the elite (not to mention the recapture of a dozen or so state legislatures).

Without these larger forces behind him, a President Sanders may have been able to slow the growth of (or possibly reverse) the gap between the rich and poor, and maybe he would have been able to win something greater than a public-option for health care.

But he alone could not stop the demobilization of working-class voters, the weakening of organized labor wrought by deindustrialization and anti-union laws, and the fall in the American standard of living. The decline of class voting and the Brahminzation of the Left, as Thomas Piketty has recently documented, is a global phenomenon — not an American quirk.

This was not a problem that could be fixed overnight. But the Bernie Sanders campaigns forced isolated leftists into real political practice for the first time in a half-century and made us confront questions about political power and organizing that we otherwise would only ever encounter in the abstract. Bernie ran a live experiment on the American polity: what happens when you embrace the kind of bold — but simple — democratic-socialist vision Sanders espoused?

Thankfully, after decades of mystification and misdirection, we now know the answer. It’s the first but crucial step in building a real left in the United States.

Reasons for Defeat, Not Retreat

Simply put, we lost for reasons any great athlete might lose a much-anticipated championship match: our opponents proved to be stronger. This was true in every field: media, party, mobilization, and money.

There was never a left available to reliably catapult Bernie to power. And Sanders knew this. He hoped to found a left that could win in the future — and, like a good democratic socialist, he always knew that was only possible if American workers led the way and took up politics. This was the “political revolution” he spoke of.

But Nagle and Tracey never once mention organized labor as a factor either in a potential counterfactual victory or in a future strategy. For them a better, more responsible “Twitter left” could have made the difference. Their outlook is the same as many of the woke culture-warriors they despise: listen to the internet, the driver of politics.

Of course, I agree that we should avoid the alienating cultural appeals that are so often grafted onto an otherwise popular political program. But we should similarly avoid the pitfall of assuming that identitarianism must be countered by social conservatism.

Nagle and Tracey don’t advocate for that, but it is clear that some in the post-Corbyn “Blue Labour” project do, and certainly some on the American left harbor similar fantasies that we could easily win elections and implement far-reaching reforms if we spent our time attacking the crazed campus lefties and whiny progressives. Yet this risks forgetting that a man named Barack Hussein Obama (who openly mocked flag pins) carried non-college educated white workers in Michigan and Pennsylvania. And won 46 percent of all white voters outside the south, well ahead of Gore and Kerry on that metric.

Cutting through the culture war was Sanders’s gift. Unfortunately, since his exit from the race it has come roaring back with even greater stupidity: liberal lockdowners versus freedom fighters in open-up USA; faux outrage at Nancy Pelosi calling Trump obese; China-virus versus COVID-19. The only thing all of these fights have in common is that none of them deal with socialist politics, none of them advocate for a particular policy or social reform that would help regulate our economy in working people’s interests, none of them help organize the have-nots together by virtue of their shared economic interest against the haves. In fact, all of them succeed in burying any analysis of political economy beneath an avalanche of cultural commentary.

In the fog of the culture-war you might miss just how much progress has been made. Working-class Americans are not social conservatives; in fact they are more tolerant today on every so-called social issue (including immigration) than their counterparts in virtually every other country. When polled, 51 percent of Americans agree that “immigration is good for the country.” Only 18 percent of French respondents are willing to say the same thing — a rebuke to both hyper-liberal progressive activists who see American workers as dangerous xenophobes as well as to Tracey and Nagle.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the American working class is more liberal than it ever has been. Even so, an understudied and undercirculated survey found that almost 80 percent of Americans polled insist that the country has become too “politically correct.” Among those who don’t have a college degree, the number is 87 percent. And distaste for ultra-liberalism isn’t limited to white workers — who progressive activists often lampoon and too easily dismiss as backward. In fact, race has almost no bearing on the nearly universal hatred of “PC culture.”

This could and should be great news for the Left. Working-class voters don’t want candidates to use ultra-liberal rhetoric but neither do they want them to tear up the important gains of the 1960s Rights Revolution. They do want health care, a decent job and pro-worker policies that make it easier to unionize — it would be wise to pitch campaigns that meet those demands. A simple message built around destroying the obscenity of inequality and providing universal public goods would likely do well to unite workers across race, gender, region, and ideology; it just can’t be paired with an alienating “woke” aesthetic.

That means we should avoid the culture war and battles over online discourse and get back to the business of organizing within our unions and beyond to build an institutionally vibrant and working-class public sphere.

These are our rebuilding years — we probably won’t be back in the playoffs for a while. And while that’s the kind of offline, labor-centered project that might not interest Nagle and Tracey, it’s our only hope.