Episode 103: The Glib Left-Punching of “Purity Politics” Discourse
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Obama Warns Against ‘Purity Tests’ In Democratic Primary,” Spectrum News reports. “Spare Me the Purity Racket,” Maureen Dowd opines for The New York Times. “‘Purity Tests’ Divide Democrats,” US News & World Report announces. “Political purity tests are for losers,” bellows The Hill. We hear it all the time. Progressives, leftists, radicals — and even sometimes liberals — are told they must not engage in the siren song of “purity politics.” “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” we are told. We must be pragmatic, realistic, we must lay down our ideological arms and stop pining for Nirvana when so much is on the line in November.
Adam: Evoking purity politics functions, more often than not, as a catchall defense of any and all criticism of establishment Democrats. In 2016, Hillary Clinton partisans used it against Bernie Sanders supporters; in 2020, Bloomberg flacks use it against Sanders again, and even Sanders partisans use it against leftist skeptics of electoralism.
Nima: Put simply, purity politics is a Get Out Of Jail Free card, a perennial Lesser of Two Evils narrative of an inherent impossibility of anything other than incremental change.
Adam: At their core, charges of purity politics are ahistoric and anti-intellectual, pathologizing alternative theories of change that don’t require political compromise as youthful vanity. Indeed, how to balance compromise and ideals has been, for centuries, the central question of the Left: plaguing French revolutionaries, Russian anarchists and socialists, black American radicals, third world liberation movements, indigenous struggles in North America and on and on and on. All have struggled with this central question: When do we compromise and when do we not?
Nima: But “purity politics” ignores this essential and rich question altogether, it brushes aside morally fraught debates about political strategy, and reduces anything short of the path of least resistance to unserious solipsism and juvenile stubbornness.
Adam: On this week’s episode, we’ll discuss how demands people drop quote-unquote “purity politics” only go in one direction: left, how moral urgency has historically been pathologized as youthful narcissism, and how our jaded, broken media elites routinely conflate preemptive defeatism with political savvy.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Brooklyn-based public policy attorney and writer Malaika Jabali, whose work on politics, race and culture has appeared in, among other places, The Guardian, Essence, Glamour Magazine, The Intercept, The Root, Jacobin, Cosmopolitan, and Current Affairs.
Malaika Jabali: The problem is when the people who do advance this sort of purity politics treat their strategy as the only strategy. And we need specifics. When are we supposed to implement that? When should we implement other things? Because other things have worked and they’ve worked in tandem. But treating this one strategy as the adult option that we should always use is completely ahistorical to how change actually works and how it’s actually manifested in our history.
Adam: Just to be clear, evoking purity politics has been around for some time, which we’ll get into and it has been used also on the right, but in recent years with the rise of Bernie Sanders, AOC and other left quote-unquote populists, evoking purity politics has become increasingly common.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Mika Brzezinski: Purity politics, Democrat style. Here comes the Tea Party of the Left.
DeRay Mckesson: I think that purity politics is really seductive, right?
Manu Raju: There was a fight between purity politics and electable candidates.
Ari Melber: He’s got a guy there who’s doing all the purity politics with none of the responsibility.
Pete Buttigieg: Vulnerable Americans do not have the luxury of pursuing ideological purity over an inclusive victory.
Daniel Strauss: Democrats this cycle really want a winner. That’s what they’re more interested in than ideological purity.
Elise Jordan: So does Bernie Sanders want to play politics a little bit and win, or does he want to have ideological purity?
Andrew Desiderio You know, the number one concern among Democratic voters right now is defeating the president, right? And then there are these, these one-offs, occasionally here, of folks who want ideological purity.
George Howell: Barack Obama, warning of a danger in progressives becoming too rigid in seeking ideological purity in their position.
Jim Messina: Look, everyone needs to calm down. We need to stay focused on beating Donald Trump. That’s what this is about. It’s not about ideological purity.
[End Clip Montage]
Adam: We’ve been floating around doing this episode for some time. I’m actually extremely glad we waited until the rise of Michael Bloomberg because Michael Bloomberg and the Democratic Party has really pushed the boundaries of this. I could have come up with an ad absurdum example testing the limits of people who will Vote Blue No Matter Who and I don’t think maybe, Nima, maybe you can, but I don’t think I could’ve come up with any better example than a racist, transphobic, Republican.
Nima: There is no way we would’ve been able to write the Michael Bloomberg crystallized case study more perfectly. It is actually really horrifying. It is the perfect distillation of who’s the worst person that you can think of voting for simply because they are not this other worst person and as a result, any pushback on that, any, it’s not even mere pushback honestly, that’s even going too far, any realistic appraisal or even just repetition of literal things that this person has said and done, if you say that in public, if you actually talk about Michael Bloomberg’s record and play clips of himself talking, you are now accused of being too pure, of not understanding how politics work and potentially just doing everything you can to sink the Democratic hope of overthrowing the Trump era and returning to the blissful normalcy of a stop-and-frisk billionaire mayoralty.
Adam: We’re going to begin by getting into the origins of the term, its history. Obviously there are different iterations of evoking purity politics, ideologically, rigid, zealot, uncompromising, but generally the concept of purity politics as a term started in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. It became the subject of various newspaper editorials, after Republican Kansas Senator John J. Ingalls, in 1890, made comments about the “purification of politics.” Ingalls had been accused of bribery and blackmail during his senate campaign in the 1870s and he said, quote:
The purification of politics is an iridescent dream. Government is force. Politics is a battle for supremacy…The Decalogue and the Golden Rule have no place in a political campaign. The object is success.
So the first time the term purity politics was evoked is someone who was credibly accused of bribery. And instead of defending himself on the merits or denying the accusations, he accused his opponents of practicing purity politics, which I think is actually a good analogy for the current iteration because venality and being able to change one’s whims based on the needs of donors or the latest poll is actually seen as a virtue.
Nima: By the 1970s and ’80s, terms like ideological purity began to surface, but in reference to the Republican Party. As Ronald Reagan took the helm of the party, those who identified as conservatives but espoused political issues we now think of as anathema to the GOP, take for example the right to have an abortion, these folks felt pushed to the party’s margins. The party, they believed, was moving so far right as to exclude its more moderate, that is, less “pure” members.
Adam: In 2018, Politico published an excerpt from a book by political scholar Sam Rosenfeld chronicling the divergence between feminists and the GOP in the 1970s and early ’80s, starting roughly with the case of Roe v. Wade in 1973 and thrown in sharp relief with Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign and victory in 1980. According to Rosenfeld, Mary Dent Crisp, a pro-choice advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment who was elected co-chair of the Republican National Committe in 1977, was critical of Reagan’s “idea of purism” quote-unquote. Crisp contended that the GOP should include politically disparate figures. From the article, quote:
As the Reagan campaign marched forcefully from state victory to state victory against his Republican competitors, Crisp grew increasingly vocal about the threat his candidacy would pose to the platform’s pro-ERA plank.
Crisp left the RNC in 1980, joining the campaign of independent John Anderson, much to Reagan’s displeasure. The article would go on to say, quote:
Revealingly, Reagan himself couched his combative response to Crisp’s July 1980 farewell remarks in the language of partisan loyalty: ‘Mary Crisp should look to herself and find out how loyal she’s been to the Republican Party for quite some time.’ The remark implied not only that conservative positions on women’s rights were the proper Republican positions, but also that a sufficient degree of apostasy on those issues amounted to partisan disloyalty.
Crisp wrote in a post-1980 convention statement that was never released, quote, “Establishing purity tests for political views is contrary to the basic assumptions underlying our two-party system.” So criticisms of Reagan of being too pure were very common in the late ‘70s when he first ran in ’76 and barely lost and of course he won in 1980, ended up fundamentally recreating politics is interesting because in retrospect, Reagan’s purity actually paid very good dividends. And of course that was a moral abomination because the things he was advocating, the pure things he was advocating, were evil instead of good. But it was obviously a very successful strategy because it gave the party a sort of moral center instead of just acting as a collection of disparate political ideas that were oftentimes mutually exclusive.
Nima: Nevertheless, denunciations of purity are still primarily targeted at the Left. Multiple examples from the ‘70s and ‘80s show that the purity rhetoric was used to classify people on the left as elitist. So for instance, The Shreveport Journal from Shreveport, Louisiana, on September 26, 1978 had an article headlined, quote, “Ideological Purity May Cost Democrats” and it’s a dispatch from Minneapolis. And the article talks about how Hubert Humphrey’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, that kind of wing of the Democratic Party had the quote “insatiable demand of the DFL left wing for ideological purity,” end quote. And it continued that this quote-unquote “purity test” has been getting harder to pass year by year. “Now it threatens to undermine the party at a critical point, challenging DFL control of this state [Minnesota] that started in the mid-’40s.” The article goes on to talk about how representative Don Fraser, who was affiliated with the DFL wing of the Democratic Party, actually lost out to a more moderate conservative businessman because he clung too closely to what the article calls his “elitism” and it was this, quote, “‘Fraser hung onto his elitist ideology against heavy odds,’ a moderate DFL leader told us. ‘He just couldn’t carry all that pro-abortion, pro-gun control and pro-environment baggage.’” End quote.
Adam: So around the mid- to late ‘80s we had the Democratic Leadership Council and other centrist democratic organizations, the Democratic Leadership Council is a 501(c)(4) created in 1985 by Al From that basically said that Walter Mondale losing to Reagan in a landslide in 1984 had shown that Democrats had become too left-wing. And then from this, their original candidate, if people recall correctly, was, was Michael Dukakis in opposition to Jesse Jackson, who was viewed as being too radical, too left-wing. A 1988 New York Times story called, quote, “BLACK AND WHITE; How Jesse Jackson Made History While Losing Wisconsin” argued that presidential candidate Jesse Jackson wasn’t successful enough in his presidential bid because of the limited, quote-unquote “pure” scope of his political platforms. Jackson campaigned to the left of his opponents, on reforms to benefit the working poor, including nationalized healthcare, labor protections, and more humane foreign policy grounded in internationalist solidarity. Meanwhile, the article mentioned Michael Dukakis, the quote, “sober, issue-oriented Democrat” unquote as a more viable alternative. And this really took off with Clinton in 1992 even though Ross Perot effectively split the Republican vote, the Democratic Leadership Council’s approach of ‘let’s co-opt Republican ideas and soak up all the Wall Street money with an understanding that the left and progressives will have nowhere to go and we’ll throw them some crumbs now and then,’ it really took off and so did this purity politics discourse. So around 1993 American Prospect columnist Richard Rothstein penned a piece called, quote, “The Left’s Obsessive Opposition.” Unquote. The column said, quote:
I have in mind two unfortunate patterns. First, Clinton’s liberal critics forget the narrowness of his mandate; they are too quick to blame the absence of a strong working liberal majority in Congress on alleged lack of presidential leadership. Second, they fall into the familiar liberal habit of making the good the enemy of the best.
Nima: Rothstein kept doing this in his writing. A few years later, he followed with a column called, quote, “Friends of Bill? Why Liberals Should Let Up on Clinton.” End quote. And it had this subhead, quote:
In Clinton’s first two years, myopic liberals complained about his compromises and disparaged his accomplishments. Now there will be fewer accomplishments and bigger compromises. Insisting on purity could only make things worse.
Adam: You increasingly have this idea that because of the scars of Mondale and Dukakis, which forever, and of course McCarthy in ’72, that for the rest of our lives, the specter of losing means you cannot be too pure, too to the left, you have to compromise and co-opt Republican ideals. Never mind, of course, every time a centrist losesJohn Kerry, Hillary Clinton that doesn’t really matter, that doesn’t really reflect the criticism of centrism.
Nima: There’s no reckoning or learning that happens when that happens.
Adam: Right. So you have the sort of permanent go-to excuse, it’s a catchall, right? You can always say, ‘Oh, we had to do this bad thing because we needed to do it to win and anyone who opposed it was just engaging in purity politics.’ And you see this in of course contemporary times as well. In November of 2014 there was an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled, quote, “Purity politics, Democrat style” that discussed climate activists who stood outside the house of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu in protest of Landrieu’s support of the Keystone XL pipeline. The piece likened activists to the Tea Party — where have I heard that one before? All of the Sanders supporters are just like Trump or the Tea Party — quote, “Here comes the tea party of the left.” Unquote. The piece also depicted the activists as extremists who were willing to allow Democrats to lose elections in order to send a message of progressivism, noting that one of the organizers “wasn’t troubled” that many “moderate Democrats” may lose their Senate seats. So you have this constant extortion regime where any kind of left-wing criticism of centrist Democrats is seen as, by definition, helping Republicans by engaging in purity politics. “In other words,” the piece would continue, quote, “candidates need to be pure, or be afraid.”
Nima: The Daily Kos was similarly sounding the alarm in 2017 with a piece entitled, quote, “So-Called ‘Progressive’ Purity Politics Will Keep the GOP in Power for Decades.” And this article, which had a telling photo of 2016 Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, chastised what it referred to as, quote, “left-leaning voters” for not voting, or at least not voting for Clinton, because they were, quote, “convinced by the GOP that their nominee just wasn’t blue enough to deserve their vote,” end quote, and also claimed that the left falls for, quote, “these Koch campaign tactics often.” End quote. Of course, this article, which really, just gets replicated over and over and over again in our media still, it’s all the same touch points, it doesn’t, of course, acknowledge any of the real reasons why people stayed home on election day, the real reasons why people decide not to vote or don’t vote for a candidate like Hillary Clinton, instead deflecting of course all the blame onto these ‘credulous’ voters themselves and absolving the campaigns or the candidates of any responsibility whatsoever.
Adam: Yeah, because it’s not the job of electeds to win you over, it’s the job of voters to vote for you, much like it’s, if I’m in sales, my, it’s not my job to get customers, it’s the customer’s job to come to me, to walk into my office and buy what I’m selling. Barack Obama has long referred to purity politics. This was a very popular pejorative for him. It began during the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movement and carried onto his post-presidency as well. During a youth town hall in London in April 2016, in the last few months before the election, then-President Obama spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement rightly bringing attention to police violence and injustice in the criminal legal system. But he then added this:
Barack Obama: One of the things I caution young people about, though, that I don’t think is effective is once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them. And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position.
The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You, then, have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment.
And too often what I see is wonderful activism that highlights a problem, but then people feel so passionately and are so invested in the purity of their position that they never take that next step and say, ‘Okay, well, now I got to sit down and try to actually get something done.’
Adam: This is a thinly veiled shot at Aislinn Pulley, who is a cofounder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, who somewhat infamously or famously rejected an invitation from the White House to go sit down with Barack Obama to talk about, with other quote-unquote “civil rights leaders” to talk about Black Lives Matter. In Obama’s theory of change the only way things get done is by good, powerful liberals meeting in rooms and chatting, right? And he doesn’t understand, or at least he doesn’t care to understand, that bringing in activists so they can do a photo-op they can put on Facebook and making a bunch of empty promises is a very common liberal tactic to obscure and degrade and render limp activist movements, right? This is why she turned it down. She said, quote:
“As a radical, Black organizer, living and working in a city that is now widely recognized as a symbol of corruption and police violence, I do not feel that a handshake with the president is the best way for me to honor Black History Month or the Black freedom fighters whose labor laid the groundwork for the historic moment we are living in.”
Nima: Because in the Obama playbook, movement building and activism is all so that you can open the door to a cigar-filled back room and then decisions get made there.
Adam: Well, you have to take the raw energy of what happens in Ferguson and do what liberal establishments do, which is take all that energy, all that anger, all that righteous indignation, all that theorizing and organizing and all those, those inspired political moral narratives and then put them into the sausage-making machine of Democratic politics. You co-opt it, this is what liberalism at its core is, fundamentally about co-opting radicalism, that’s what liberalism is there to do and if you’re not permitted to be co-opted or bought or bribed, you’re seen as being, again, a narcissist, which is what he’s calling her. Basically.
Nima: Obama continued to do this throughout the spring of 2016, remember what was going on at that time as well, it was still the, you know, end of primary season, so there was the Clinton versus Sanders campaigns going on at that time as Obama was in the final year of his presidency. And so he really repeated this idea of purity politics a number of times. For instance, in a commencement address at Howard University the next month after that previous clip, on May 7, 2016, Obama said this:
Barack Obama: Democracy requires compromise even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with it. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged.
Nima: This ideological project of Obama has continued after he left the oval office. Last fall in October of 2019, NPR reported that Obama “raised concerns” about “ideological purity” from Democrats on the left during a talk at the Obama Foundation summit in Chicago. During that talk, this is what he said:
Barack Obama: Yeah, this, this idea of purity and you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world, the world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.
Adam: This is someone who of course ran a centrist campaign. He’s basically a conservative or Republican or maybe even a conservative Democrat who’s clearly just mad, I mean, you know, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, coined the term the “professional left” for criticizing him. So of course he’s going to complain about purity politics because it’s a way he doesn’t have to engage with various theories of change. Like activists have one theory of change, he has one theory, another theory of change, you know, different sects on the Left have different theories of change and we can have that debate, but he’s not interested in a real debate. He’s interested in being a fucking smug asshole who dunks on activists, who he views as being insufficiently obsequious to his rule.
So journalist and media critic Alan MacLeod wrote a critique of the use of “purity politics” for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, in which he cited numerous examples of news articles admonishing against moving too far to the left, framing it as purity. MacLeod observed that quote-unquote “purity test” denotes a desire for further-left policies and disillusionment with politicians who obstruct them. In one example, the Denver Post argued in January 2019 that, quote, “purity tests” unquote, would destroy the candidate with the most quote-unquote “pragmatic” records and that the best chance to win — which, according to the Denver Post, was John Hickenlooper, who as we all know, caught fire and is now-
Nima: (Laughing) And is now president.
Adam: And is now president. Oh wait, I’m getting word, he’s now a footnote in history that nobody knows. MacLeod continued that, the more corporate wing of the Democratic party constantly evokes purity tests. Of course this has been used numerous times in the 2019/2020 electoral season. We’re going to go over a few of those, the idea of purity tests quote-unquote “dividing the party.” We discussed this in Episode 84 on “sowing discord” with guest Max Alvarez, but this idea of purity as something that’s going to divide the party and then lead to four more years of Trump because somehow ideological purity undermines whoever the eventual frontrunner is, which I assume in this scenario is presumed to be a more centrist candidate. Maureen Dowd wrote a column July 27, 2019 entitled, quote, “Spare Me the Purity Racket” which was sort of a smug, delusional tirade against critics of her cozy relationship with Democratic party elites. She wrote it in response to online outrage after a photo surfaced of Dowd hobnobbing with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and other powerful members of the Democratic establishment. From the column, she suggested that critics considered her and her cohorts, quote, “Dreaded Elites” because we were quote-unquote “eating chocolates” and because Pelosi, quote, “had on some good pumps.” She went on to write:
Yo, proletariat: If the Democratic Party is going to be against chocolate, high heels, parties and fun, you’ve lost me. And I’ve got some bad news for you about 2020. The progressives are the modern Puritans. The Massachusetts Bay Colony is alive and well on the Potomac and Twitter.
Nima: (Laughing.) As if the critiques are any of those things, I mean it’s so, it’s so brazenly absurd.
Adam: Being a New York Times columnist is a Supreme Court lifetime appointment. Maureen Dowd’s been phoning in this column for, God, 20 years? And here we’ve got another kind of thin skins, a few critics on Twitter, evidently a third of all New York Times columns now are just people being mad at people on Twitter, which is great because I’m told Twitter doesn’t really matter. She went on to say, quote, “The recipe for emotional satisfaction on the part of the progressive left is not a recipe for removing Trump from the White House.” So again, that which offends me is actually what’s bad for removing Trump, right? You criticizing me, I’m not gonna engage with the substance of your criticism, I’m just going to call you a Puritan and then note that, by definition, you criticizing me somehow helps Trump, which is of course extremely convenient.
Nima: A US News article from 2019 did a similar thing. It was entitled, “’Purity Tests’ Divide Democrats” and it framed the pressure on political candidates to reject corporate and mega-wealthy donors as one of — what else? — “purity” and thus “division.” So according to the article, 2020 Democratic candidates are being given a quote-unquote “purity test” which is this: Either reject these donations and be pure, or accept them and be unpure. But, apparently, by accepting this money, through this article you are presumed to then have a better chance of winning. The Washington Post ran a story headlined, quote, “Sanders-Warren rift highlights liberal divide: Purity vs. pragmatism” end quote. This was in January of this year, 2020. The article maintained that, quote,
Sanders has risen in the presidential field by pushing a revolutionary agenda with little regard for cost or compromise, while Warren has won a following as a liberal who is ambitious but practical…That split could play into opponents’ hands, some liberals fear.
Adam: Yeah, and so this is a very common retort for any left criticism. I’m sure people on the left have heard this a million times. It’s a conversation stopper. It’s not an invitation for debate or discussion and that the central question of the Left, the most important question of the Left that has haunted all Left movements since there’s been a Left, again from slave revolts, from the abolitionist movement to anti-colonial struggles, liberation theology, Marxism, socialism, communism, anarchism, Russia, Mexico, Haiti, India, I could go on and on and on. All these tracks they all deal with whoever the writers or thinkers are, revolutionaries are, they have all poured endless rivers of ink debating the question of when do you compromise and when do you not compromise? It is a question that has plagued moral thinkers since the dawn of time. And by evoking purity politics, you’re basically saying that this extremely important, very rich, very nuanced, very complicated question of when do you compromise, and what strategies do you use to not compromise, and what does it look like to leverage power, even if it’s not electoral power, extralegal protest, violence, arm, guns, direction, all of these complicated questions — oh, purity politics, all dismissed. There’s no engaging in the conversation because anyone vaguely to your left or anyone who doesn’t just acquiesce to the lowest common denominator, acquiesce to the path of least resistance, is just saying, ‘Oh, you’re purity politics. You get the fuck out of here.’
Nima: But it also defines what purity is based on its own rules, based on who’s speaking. So I mean, it’s certainly worth noting here that left-leaning policies are actually very popular in the United States. The majority of people here support nationalized healthcare, free college, elimination of student debt, reform of the criminal legal system and other so-called left or certainly progressive policies. So this sets up a fundamental question and one that I think many have already asked and is the sort of impetus of this particular episode: Who’s really causing these so-called divisions in the party? It also calls into question the very definition of the term “purity politics.” So even if more conservative Democrats view themselves as pragmatic and willing to compromise, who’s to say that that isn’t their own specific form of purity politics? So why is any set of politics deemed more pure than any other when a centrist paradigm or even a more outright reactionary political paradigm might be what someone — potentially someone who’s very self-serving, of course — what they truly or purely believe in. Why are purity politics chiefly portrayed as only a quality, at this point, of the Left?
Adam: And ultimately it’s a very fatuous thing to say, right? Because all politics are purity politics, just like all capitalism is crony capitalism, all interests are special interests and all politics are purity politics. That’s what politics is. Politics are about competing norms and finding those places that you compromise in, you know, the most radical revolutionaries you can possibly imagine, you know, Lenin, Malcolm X, sort of the Black Panthers, they all compromise to some extent and in various times and they had long, extended, difficult conversations about what that, there is literally no such thing as a purity politics fetishist. They don’t exist. It is a total straw man. All these clips you’ve watched, all these articles are bashing someone who doesn’t exist. What they’re arguing is that they found someone who actually believes in something that they don’t believe in or that they’re paid not to believe in and those aren’t the same thing.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Brooklyn-based public policy attorney and writer Malaika Jabali, whose work on politics, race and culture has appeared in, among other places, The Guardian, Essence, Glamour Magazine, The Intercept, The Root, Jacobin, Cosmopolitan, and Current Affairs. Malaika will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by public policy attorney and writer Malaika Jabali. Malaika, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Malaika Jabali: Thank you for having me. I’m a fan.
Adam: Well, thank you so much for joining us. We are fans as well. So the term purity politics is a fascinating one for me. It seems like it’s inversely, it’s used inversely proportional to any kind of left-wing movement, so it definitely seems to be everywhere these days. Typically it’s coupled with the equally dreaded quote-unquote “ideological purity” and more often than not it’s sort of presented as inversely proportional to the concept of electability that purity politics gets in the way of building broad coalitions, e.g. winning over the mysterious cohort of soccer moms whose ideology happens to align with Goldman Sachs. You wrote a great piece about this in The Guardian last year, and you’ve touched on this elsewhere in your work. And I want to start by kind of giving our listeners an overview of how you think the term has morphed into this kind of ‘gotcha’ bludgeon in recent years and what it says about the rise of the kind of more ideological, even very moderate Social Democrat ideology of Sanders and Sander-ism.
Malaika Jabali: Yes. So I wrote this piece in The Guardian as a response to an interview that Barack Obama was having at his Obama Foundation summit. So he does this foundation summit event in Chicago annually, for I think maybe the last two or three years. And he was speaking to a panel of kind of younger activists and warning them about the dangers of purity politics. But what people took out of that conversation was really his calling out quote-unquote of “call-out culture.” So he himself was saying, you know, you have these younger, strident, activist-Left, this progressive movement that is insisting on being divisive and you cannot out-woke everybody and it’s going to pull people away. So people glommed onto that, but they weren’t kind of looking at his larger message, the drum that he’s been beating for the last few years, which I noticed started with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in contrast to the Bernie Sanders campaign to say, ‘We may not get the candidate that we want, but everyone you need to show up anyway.’ You would think that from that election, where Hillary Clinton lost the election and a lot of people did stay home, that some lessons would have been learned but instead people seem to be going in the opposite direction, which seems to be a theme. (Laughs.)
Adam: More scolding. We’re going to stick with the scolding.
Malaika Jabali: Yeah. More scolding. Even with more and more dangerous candidates that are popping up, including Michael Bloomberg, we’re using the same arguments.
Nima: So I kind of want to talk about this notion of compromise, which is really at the heart of, I think, the purity politics, bludgeon, the idea that, you know, meeting in some imaginary middle is really how change happens and in this patronizing understanding of how adults do politics, who, Malaika, is always expected to then compromise, whose values, who safety, whose lives wind up being always up for debate? This is obviously not at all a leading question.
Malaika Jabali: (Laughs.) Is this a leading question? Let me guess. I think you can look at who is always, who is on the receiving end of these messages and so again, I start with Barack Obama because I feel like this term really came from him. He’s used it frequently. That is what I cited in the piece. He used it once to talk about Black Lives Matter activists in 2016 when they confronted Hillary Clinton, he used it again to talk about black young progressives who were challenging the prison industrial complex. He used it a few times more over the last two years and so just who his audiences are, it has been, you know, these Black Lives Matter activists, it’s been a Left movement, it’s been young people, it’s been a variety of progressive and leftists really all over the globe because he’s traveling around the world with this message almost as a warning to say that if we do not find this compromise then we can lose elections, as if we’re the only ones losing elections.
Nima: Right, right. I mean it’s always the idea that this next election is always the most important one in the history of the world and therefore it’s not time to hold fast to any sort of ideology because the stakes are always too high.
Malaika Jabali: Right. And you would think that with really high stakes, then you would follow the candidates, and this is just speaking of the electoral process, because there are other types of ways where you can use more radical tactics. Barack Obama is not even talking about that, and I don’t want to just talk about him, but other Democratic leaders, the Democratic establishment, aren’t even thinking about the protest movement, where is the protest movement outside of electoral politics? So the conversation is already constrained within the electoral process and now the demand is that even within us working within these bounds of democracy, we can’t even say, well, I’m going to use my civil rights to vote for who I would like to vote for. Even with that, there’s a scolding involved.
Adam: So this is what frustrates me about this and we’ve spent the greater part of half an hour talking about this, which is that the kind of zombie phrase “purity politics” is a conversation stopper. It’s extremely glib and it uses pop psychology to do it, right? So balancing ideals in pragmatism is, as we discussed or, and I, and I believe this is sort of the central question of the Left, it has been the thing that’s plagued leftists since there’s been a Left, and evoking purity politics just takes this really rich history and ideological and moral struggle that entire server farms have been written about this struggle and it just says, eh, poo-poo, not important. You just need to vote for whoever the fuck we tell you to vote for. And it really kind of ignores this messy, fraught question in a really pat way and it does so, of course, by way of pathology, by reducing it to youthful vanity or narcissism or solipsism and I think there’s a sort of glibness to it that I find offensive and I think people wonder why people are cynical about politics and I think getting head-patted constantly by Democratic leaders and telling you, you know, if you don’t vote for whoever is the nominee, again preemptively, right? We haven’t, we do this automatically before Bloomberg even wins a single delegate, we’re told to do this. There’s this constant sort of extortion racket and then you know, people don’t like to be extorted. And I guess what I’m curious about is, is to what extent do you think this complete dismissal of this rich history turns people off from politics or can kind of serve as a, especially for younger voters, why am I going to get engaged if some prick, you know, who’s 60 years old starts off by telling me to shut the fuck up and get in line?
Malaika Jabali: Yeah, I think it’s intergenerational. I think about that woman who was interviewed on CNN and there’s been a big campaign to say that the Left proposals, the progressive proposals that have come out over the last couple of years are just too far left for the Midwest.
Adam: E.g., white people. Yeah, they use the word Midwest as code, right? It’s sort of, there’s, there’s this nebulous white person in the Midwest.
Malaika Jabali: Yes. It’s a random blue-collar Joe in Wisconsin and the imagery that’s being used to say, ‘Well we have to appeal to this group,’ but then when you go to the Midwest, even that flattens the rich history of progressivism in the Midwest that’s been espoused by, you know, a variety, a multiracial movement in those states. And so they interviewed this woman on CNN or I think it was on MSNBC, and she said, ‘I’m voting for Bernie Sanders because you all keep talking about him.’
Nima: Yeah, that was amazing.
Malaika Jabali: So I do think that there is a reaction to that and people start to, I think there’s definitely more skepticism about it, especially because again, you’re seeing that the results are not there. The only person who really won off of that was Bill Clinton because Barack Obama did not win off of that in 2008. John Kerry didn’t win off this centrism of, ‘Okay, just hold your nose, this is what we have to do to be pragmatic.’ It did not win in 2004, it did not win in 2016 and Hillary Clinton lost because of that in 2008 as well because Barack Obama was campaigning on Hope and Change. And then you look at the midterm elections, this is something else that you saw with some of the candidates. It wasn’t like a massive movement, but you did see examples of that in the Midwest with Rashida Tlaib winning and Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez where they’re facing these establishment candidates who have been saying this for many years now: ‘You just have to be pragmatic.’
Adam: When it’s spoken about, it’s spoken as something that is youthful naivete, right? You constantly get this idea of these pie-in-the-sky college kids are always the straw man, but you’re right. We talk about the Midwest as this sort of racial code word anytime, some rich, extremely wealthy, white liberal wants to bash trans people or wants to gut Social Security, what is the first thing they do? What they do what we call on the show the Bill Maher, right? The, ‘I’m not bigoted, I don’t want to cut Social Security, but Joe Six Pack in Wisconsin who’s this sort of mythical white working class swing voter, he’s too ignorant. Not like you and I. We’re hip.’
Nima: Heartland values voters who work in industry.
Adam: Yeah, ‘We’re on the set of Real Time. We get it. But we have to vote for the most boring fucking ghouls because otherwise,’ so I want you to talk about your experiences and how this nebulous Midwest voter we’re all scrambling to appease who of course is just a proxy for the ruling-class interest, I want you to talk about how your experiences kind of messy up that narrative.
Malaika Jabali: Yes. So the most recent has been the reporting and filming that I’ve done in Wisconsin and some reporting in Chicago that I haven’t shared yet, but it’s what my recent trips have included. But even before that, I worked on campaigns, volunteered on campaigns, and that’s when it really first hit me. It was in 2012 I was campaigning in Cleveland, Ohio. And you hear so much about Real America and what their values are like. And these people were the people that we interacted with, that we canvassed, were straight-up populist. When you said the name Mitt Romney, they had a visceral reaction to it. They could cite this anti-Romney ad word for word, they knew the 47 percent stat on the drop of a dime, and so unfortunately, even when we talk about progressive values in the Midwest, we tend to not think about, you know, the black and Latino and Muslim voters who are out there and so I knew that there was a gap. And so there’s a gap in just how we flatten and stereotype white Midwesterners, but even more so of a gap, not even recognizing that people of color live in this region and they have some of these values. So my recent reporting was to shed more light into that. And then, you know, just to go back to the results of the Midwest, if you look at the two states that Bernie Sanders won, when he surprised really Clinton, it was Michigan and Wisconsin. He won every county but one in Wisconsin so that should really tell you something that there’s something else going on in this region. But unfortunately a lot of mainstream outlets aren’t trying to ask why and so my purpose of going to the Midwest was actually talking to them and looking behind the data and talking to people and asking them, how come you are voting in ways that we’re told only the coastal elites vote? And there is a history of Democratic Socialism in Milwaukee. There’s a history of socialism in Chicago. There’s a history of black radical politics throughout the region. So that’s what my film Left Out, it’s a short documentary, I talk about it in that and I talk about it in a piece called “The Color of Economic Anxiety.”
Nima: Yeah. This idea of the ahistorical nature of what we are led to believe are just pragmatic appeals to winning at all costs — it’s just about winning, then we can figure everything out — they rely on this really false history and one of the, I think, really important points you note in your Guardian piece is how comforting this patience narrative freezes people in time. And you note for instance, Obama in his speeches talking about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King as examples of this patient progress and you write this, quote:
[Obama] failed to note either King’s or Parks’s evolutions. Over time King became more radicalized and questioned integration. When Parks was forced to Detroit to retreat from the backlash against her bus boycott activism, she became a proponent of the Panthers’ self-defense demands and identified Malcolm X as her personal hero.
End quote. So there’s this common habit of anti-purity scolds, that they ignore many of history’s most famous so-called pragmatists or rather cultural icons who have been deliberately sanitized into pragmatists and who were really in certain contexts very much disillusioned with the system, the overall system and advocated for far more radical and sometimes extralegal approaches. So how does this reality of political diplomacy made urgent by direct action, how does that square with contemporary purity politics discourse?
Malaika Jabali: It is opposed to it and I think that is how it’s supposed to be. You need these things happening at the same time and even the discourse on being patient and having moderation, okay, but up until what point? So I think the problem is when the people who do advance the sort of purity politics treat their strategy as the only strategy, and we need specifics. When are we supposed to implement that? When should we implement other things? Because other things have worked and they’ve worked in tandem. But treating this one strategy as the adult option that we should always use is completely ahistorical to how change actually works and how it’s actually manifested in our history. So we did not get out of slavery with just the Emancipation Proclamation where Lincoln just stood and wrote a thing and— boom!—everyone’s free now. (Chuckles.) Thank gosh! The Confederacy decided to unite over this document. That is not how it happens when you look at, again, just the trends of how things work, it requires some sort of agitation. Even the Civil Rights Act that the Civil Rights Movement fought for in the mid-60s really didn’t see any traction until there was protest movements, civil disobedience, like, I wonder what a Nancy Pelosi or a Joe Biden would’ve said in the 1960s when they saw people clogging up the streets. And people aren’t really even doing that level of action and we’ve sanitized even that.
Adam: Yeah. To say nothing of the uprisings in Watson, Detroit, and Washington DC and dozens of other cities. I mean this was, this was what, you can go look at the, you know, LBJ or Nixon tapes and look at internal memos and discussions. They’re not worried about upsetting white liberals. They’re worried about, I mean, there was even a secret plan to create an internment camp for 20 million African Americans that was floated as the predecessor to the NSA. I mean, there were real fears of uprising. It didn’t just come a priori from some good government, white liberal and this is the sort of theory of change that, that people don’t appreciate and this kind of gets to my question, which is that it’s not as if, I don’t think anyone here is arguing that there can’t be people who are gratuitously pure or not thoughtful about what it means to compromise, I think the question, the sort of key question is, as I said, capital “T,” capital “C,” capital “Q,” The Central Question of how and when you compromise is such an important one and to just sort of gloss over it, I think again, it is both glib and ahistorical and I want to get your thoughts about when someone says—this is getting a little prescriptive—but when someone says, ‘Oh, that’s purely politics,’ what is sort of an equally glib or equally pithy comment one can sort of say in response to that? Because it is attractive for a lot of people: ‘Oh, purity politics.’
Malaika Jabali: I think for a lot of these things it just involves asking questions, so that’s not very pithy. I’m sorry. I would just ask them for details. What exactly do you mean by that? Who is being pure? What exactly are you asking people to compromise? If they say that they are interested in free healthcare, which most industrial nations have, is that not a fair, you know, request? Is saying that we have $1 trillion student loan debt and someone needs to be able to tackle that and offer that cancellation and offer free tuition, how is that too far left? So I would try and get a sense of what people actually mean when they say, you know, someone’s politics ‘can’t be so pure,’ and since The Central Question is also, ‘Well, we just need to elect whoever,’ well, do you think not advocating for those positions hasn’t worked before? Who has it worked with? Can we try something different since that has not worked so far? You know, I like to engage in kind of genuine debate with people and just ask questions because I’m curious too, you know, I don’t have all the answers, you know, none of us have all the answers. And so if you approach people with this sense, ‘Okay, maybe some of what you say has merit, so explain it,’ because unfortunately what it’s being used as kind of a weapon and a shield to silence people and to afford, unfortunately, a select group of who have power to maintain it because they don’t want to feel uncomfortable with being confronted by people who have better politics than they do and confronted with the possibility that those politics could actually win over their politics. And so I think you have a fair amount of people who are the latter where they just want to win and they want to maintain power and then other people who are just kind of bought into the rhetoric.
Adam: Yeah, they’re captured. You know, I think asking questions is intriguing to me because what you do when you say, ‘Well, okay, if it’s not purity, what are we compromising? List the five things you’re willing to compromise and then ask yourself if your class racial and cis interests happen to overlap with those things you’re willing to compromise, right?’ Like, you’re a rich pundit on MSNBC, you have, you’re cis, you have healthcare, you have, you know, no student loans, you’re a millionaire and you hang out with other millionaires, like, of course you’re going to think that healthcare and trans rights are all purity politics, right? I mean that’s the thing, right?
Nima: Yeah. It kind of reminds me of the posture that South Park takes, the idea that if you care too much, you’re lame, that can be mocked and the, I think the purity politics doesn’t do so much of the mocking; it does the scolding, it equates having actual principles with extremism and therefore rigidity. This fundamentalist stance that can’t be compromised with, can’t be bargained with, but that’s never really proven to be the case, it’s just stated as the case while then assuming that people who are making that accusation don’t have politics themselves, don’t have their own ideology that actually winds up being served by painting others as extremists. So it’s, like, somehow if you say that other people have purity politics, and that they’re just too beholden to their own morality and they don’t open the door for discussion, first off, that’s a straw man, but then secondly, it absolves the speaker of not really caring about that much or what they do care about is so closely aligned with the already existing power structures that they don’t want to actually talk about that.
Malaika Jabali: Yeah, and I feel like they’ve kind of shown their hand here with the Bloomberg, his entrance into the race where the things that, you know, they did say that they valued, can’t talk about, you know, corporate interests, corporate power, we can’t talk about policing, but just some basic elements of democracy here where someone is buying into the race, changing the democratic rules, you care about order and you care about democracy and here is someone who was using all of these tactics to manipulate Americans through this immense amount of saturation, the same things that you said Donald Trump was doing with his campaign and Russia and Russian interference, his campaign is doing, like, a very parallel sort of propaganda, having the same of parallel propaganda machine and yet we can’t even talk about that. So is the object here to just win with no politics whatsoever?
Adam: Yeah. Actually, I want you to talk about Bloomberg because I think you’re right. Bloomberg is an extremely fascinating, real-time, it exposes the utter vacuousness of this. It’s a far more extreme version of Hillary Clinton in terms of jamming things, total hypocrisy, jamming things down your throat because Hillary Clinton, for as conservative as she was, is probably ten times better than Bloomberg because at the very least people like Clinton, Biden, these kind of patched-together Democratic Party zombie candidates, they have some actual political commitments to the Democratic Party base, you know, environmental groups, unions, just a little bit, right? Because they need them to get elected, they need to build coalitions. Bloomberg has none of that. Bloomberg is beholden to his capricious Republican ideology that just sort of is vaguely woke on guns, and we talk about purity politics and people are already jumping into the ‘Will you vote for Bloomberg?’ I mean they’re doing that, they do this to every single Sanders surrogate, no one else, ‘Will you vote for Bloomberg?’ And it’s so bizarre because he even sells out the alleged wokeness that Clinton had, you know, he calls trans people “it,” he’s a verified racist so even that’s exposed as phony. So what are we not willing to just completely throw under the bus? And they say, ‘Oh, well, he’s 0.05 percent better.’ Well, okay-
Malaika Jabali: If that, honestly. (Laughs.) That’s precisely, that’s precisely the point. It reveals just how vapid that sort of framing is when you can have someone who is basically a Republican and you’re asking us to not be beholden to any sort of politics whatsoever because we just need to align with him because he’s now running on the Democratic Party ticket.
Adam: Because we’re in a constant state of emergency, and again, he was a Republican until 2018. And you see it strain some of the Vote Blue No Matter Who crowd, who’s just losing their minds, they’re, like, ‘Wait a second, ideologically I sort of bought into this project, I bought into the kind of Clinton, #KHive, you’re capitalist, but at least you’re not overtly racist’ and now we’re just getting rid of that. So I don’t know, it’s bizarre to watch. It’s depressing to see who kind of capitulates although I think it’s interesting that some of the quarters have been, like, ‘Wait, time out. No.’
Nima: Do you mean Meghan McCain?
Adam: I meant like the Podbros, you know, the sort of Johns. There’s some sort of segment that’s like, we need to, because you’re right with the Russian analogy, we were, you know, we, we had a four-year meltdown over Bernie ads and now this guy is basically implying Obama endorsed him and so it’s like-
Nima: His ads say “Democrat for president.” (Laughs.)
Adam: So I mean, I don’t know.
Malaika Jabali: Yeah. So it’s the wildest thing ever. I mean I thought that living under Donald Trump was a reality TV show but this is just even more bizarre because it’s, like, what alternative universe are we in right now where Bloomberg is considered an accessible candidate given every single thing that you said is on your party platform for the last year and you’ve browbeaten everybody into prioritizing those things, for you to throw it away and say, ‘Okay, no, we should, let’s consider getting behind — ’
Nima: Yeah, exactly because he’s more billionaire than the other guy.
Adam: Yeah — you know what? — it sounds, it sounds to me like you’re really engaging in purity politics. I think you need to grow up —
Adam: You need to get realistic about the way the world works.
Nima: So before we go, Malaika, can you let our listeners know what you’re up to these days and what we can be looking out for from you in the near term?
Malaika Jabali: Sure. I want to plug, it’s a group of concerned citizens, some independent journalists we got together and started vetbloomberg.com so we’re going to be aggregating media that the mainstream media is not aggregating to vet Michael Bloomberg and there are some video projects that we’re planning that will come out for that. I finished my first short documentary film and released it on YouTube. It’s called Left Out. You can find that at bit.ly/leftout2020 and it’s about the working class in the Midwest, the black working class in particular and how they have been ignored by mainstream media and you can find me on Twitter, @MalaikaJabali.
Nima: Awesome. Everyone do all those things, watch all those things, read all those things, follow Malaika. We’ve been speaking with Malaika Jabali, Brooklyn-based public policy attorney and writer whose work on politics, race, and culture has appeared in, among many other places, The Guardian, Essence, Glamour, The Intercept, The Root, Jacobin, Cosmopolitan, and Current Affairs. Malaika, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Malaika Jabali: Thank you all for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I think the Bloomberg candidacy is really testing the limits of this. It’s a real-time experiment, a real-time ad absurdum whether or not you can take a racist, homophobic, transphobic, billionaire, run them in the Democratic Primary and see how, I mean really just testing, it’s like a stress test for, like, the Neera Tandens of the world, like, how venal, how amoral, how bankrupt, how extortionist, how hypocritical can you be? Let’s just test the limits of that and test that theory that as a party you need to have basically zero ideological coherence or moral vision. Your entire existence is based on an extortion racket that if you don’t vote for me, this Nazi is going to take over and if you have any trepidation whatsoever-
Nima: And therefore it’s on you! That’s the, that’s the thing. Therefore you’re the one who was being too pure, right?
Adam: If you have any trepidation whatsoever as a Muslim for voting on someone who spied on Muslims and has said racist things towards Muslims, you’re purity politics.
Nima: That’s right. Get over yourself. It’s basically saying get on board or get out of the way, and this notion that there are no limits, there need be no limits to how low a candidate can sink or the red lines for your personal issues that can be crossed as long as they have the party affiliation, the correct party affiliation at this point and are the candidate against the more evil of the two evils and somehow white liberals very rarely have to compromise that much when purity politics is at play and communities of color or poor people or Muslims or women or whatever it may be, whatever it fucking may be, there’s always far more compromise that needs to happen from places and people who have so much more to lose, whose lives and security are going to be far more at stake if this person wins, and yet they are being told, scolded to get in line.
Adam: Yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out if Sanders gets the nomination because then we’re going to have the opposite purity politics and that’ll be a roller coaster ride.
Nima: Well that’ll be the most fun part, right? Because then it’s, like, ‘Oh, wait, you mean — ?
Adam: You’re all phony bullshitters who didn’t believe it.
Nima: Oh, now there are, there are things that you won’t support. Got it.
Nima: Thanks for explaining. That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed on purity politics. Thank you everyone for listening and for your ongoing support. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter at @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson and as always, an extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. The newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.