When it became apparent that Joe Biden had effectively won the Democratic nomination, it intensified the longstanding arguments between the party’s moderate and left wings about just where the American public falls on that beloved–and misleading–left/right spectrum.
This is the fourth consecutive defeat for Sanders-style revolutionary leftist politics in the Anglosphere: Sanders lost to Clinton in 2016; Sanders-style revolutionary candidates lost most of their Congressional races in 2018 while moderates were much more successful; Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to Labour politics was obliterated in Great Britain by buffoonish Boris Johnson’s Tories in a direct Sanders-Trump parallel; and now the Biden victory in the 2020 Democratic primary.
But defeatism would be the wrong lesson for leftists interested in passing social democratic policies in America and Britain. The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform.
The article went on to point to the mountain of social science research confirming that so-called “Leftist” policies are favored by significant majorities of Americans, which is undeniably true. (The author also pointed out those insisting that economic self-interest can trump cultural divisions are just as undeniably wrong.)
This was just one article among hundreds arguing that this or that campaign success or failure was the result of mistaken political strategies and issue framing. (If Bernie hadn’t insisted on using the word “socialist”….)
To an extent, that’s true. What all of these analyses miss, however, is the role played by our American insistence on labeling everything. It isn’t simply intellectually lazy; labels significantly distort political reality.
If I consider myself a moderate or conservative, I will recoil when told that position A is “socialist” or “communist.” If I consider myself a liberal or socialist, I will automatically oppose measure A if it is supported by people I consider conservative or reactionary.
Actually, what is “left” and what is “right” at any given time is highly contingent.
When I was a politically-active Republican, the majority of the views I held were the same views I share on this blog. (Not all, obviously, but most. My basic political philosophy has been pretty consistent.) Back then, I was labeled “very conservative.” As the GOP marched over the ideological cliff, my positions–which hadn’t changed– became “liberal.”
Hard as it may be to believe in our culturally and politically polarized time, many of the positions that Americans label “far left” today were considered unremarkable and mainstream in former years.
That shift is best explained by a concept called the Overton Window. Basically, as public opinion shifts, so does the location of the “middle.” That middle, at any given time, defines what is politically possible.
In a sane society (granted, that isn’t what we currently inhabit), voters would analyze political positions based upon the perceived ability of those specific proposals to solve identifiable problems–not upon the consistency of that proposal with a label ascribing it to a tribal ideology.
But that would require understanding the problem, agreeing that it is a problem, and thinking carefully about the pros and cons of the proposed solution. It’s so much easier to react not to the proposal but to its identification with the “tribe” that supports it.
I guess that’s why we can’t have nice things…..