Episode 171: The Vacuity of “Radical Libs Forced Voters Into the Arms of the Right” 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: “How the Left Created Trump” revealed Rob Hoffman in Politico in November 2016. “Blame liberals for the rise of Donald Trump,” insisted S.E. Cupp in the Chicago Tribune the year before. “How the left enabled fascism,” explained David Winner in The New Statesman in 2018.
Adam: For decades, and ramping up quite a bit since 2016, we’ve been fed a narrative that the rise of any right-wing tendency is the fault of leftists and liberal scolds. The electoral appeal and success of fascist movements and politicians, we’re told, is first and foremost a reaction to blue-haired wokeness warriors whose language and protests alienate and antagonize capital “R,” capital “P,” Real People. These Real People, then, have no choice but to shift further right, where they find a political home — typically shared with the likes of wealthy faux-populists like J.D. Vance, Donald Trump, Josh Hawley, and Tucker Carlson — that makes them feel included and represents their best interests.
Nima: It’s a convenient refrain. Instead of placing the blame on wealthy and powerful right-wingers and centrists who actually benefit from the preservation of reactionary politics, or giving credit to left-wing activists for challenging devastating right-wing policies, this narrative instead demonizes the powerless, while insisting that those who are fighting for a better world should simply give up, lest their agitative ways turn off potential allies and create another Trump. Who does this narrative benefit, and how do both overtly right-wing and ostensibly liberal legacy media allow it to persist?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll dissect the popular notion that reactionaries’ politics are the result not of their own interests or material forces, but of a snarky, out-of-touch Lefties who say too many mean things and simply bring up racism, imperialism and other injustices too much, and if they simply went away, the Trump right would starve itself to death and be replaced by moderate, reasonable National Review friendly political right.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Daniel Denvir, host of The Dig podcast on Jacobin Radio and author of All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics As We Know It, which was published in 2020 by Verso Books.
Daniel Denvir: The culpability of the Republican Party as it’s existed for decades in making Trumpism a reality from Goldwater through Reagan, Gingrich’s Republican revolution, the Tea Party, it’s pretty obvious why the Weekly Standard, Lincoln Project types are complicit in the right becoming evermore just deranged and why they would not like to be blamed for that.
Adam: So yeah, this is a thread that goes back a while, but it’s really, really been amplified since 2016, and has gotten much more acute in recent years, and it makes sense because if I’m a well-funded centrist, center left corporate Democrat or corporate Republican, which I know is a bit of a tautology, and then we have this apparent rise of fascism, it makes MAGA explicitly and overtly vulgar and cruel and chauvinists.
Nima: Yeah. The Adam Serwer “cruelty is the point” kind of political party.
Adam: Right. You sort of need a thing that caused it and you can’t go back to the antecedents in the Republican Party, Reaganism, the John Birch Society, all this kind of stuff that really was the proto version of Trumpism where we sort of just kept it right under the surface, maybe not so with Bircherism, but with like Reaganism, Bushism etcetera, and it can’t say anything existential or fundamental about our country. So there’s a market to find a culprit, right? There’s a dead body and we need to sort of have a murderer, and there’s an incentive then to say, ‘Oh, well, okay, actually, it’s caused by the left going too far and that the left didn’t go so far or wasn’t so mean, or scoldy or woke’ or whatever, kind of, you know, I guess back then, as we’ll discuss in 2016, it was identity politics was the big boogeyman, ‘if they didn’t bitch and moan so much, there wouldn’t have been as robust of a market for Trumpism,’ and what’s great about this is it’s entirely impossible to know, right? It’s entirely unknowable. It is entirely unfalsifiable. Who knows how to measure that. No one’s attempted to measure that.
Nima: Without a confirmed murder of the entire Left.
Adam: Right. So it’s this very convenient and very cheesy talking because on a superficial level, it sort of makes sense. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, like there’s that one weirdo I saw on Twitter who was annoying and I could see why that may drive someone else into the arms of fascism.’ And of course, nobody themselves will sort of tell you that, and then that therefore kind of gets everybody off the hook and is a twofer, right? Because not only do I kind of justify or kind of obscure the role of the American right big funders, you know, again, Reaganism, Koch brothers, all the Walton family, all the kind of people who’ve propped up a Republican Party that oftentimes talked in code that led to the rise of Trumpism, you know, you’re sort of Lou Dobbs, you’re Fox News, all those sort of guys get off the hook but I have two for the price of one. Now I’m also disparaging —
Nima: Condemning the activist.
Adam: Yeah, blue haired academics that I sort of hate because I hate academics, and I hate gay people and it kind of serves both purposes.
Nima: Well, yeah. You know, to start, I think it’s important to refer back to a New York Times editorial from 1859 that we’ve actually brought up on the show before Adam.
Adam: Yeah, this is sort of the original version of this, right? This is the OG of OGs.
Nima: Yeah, it’s like the northern liberals made me love chattel slavery more than I would have if they had just shut their damn mouth. So this is from the New York Times Wednesday, January 19, 1859, written by The Times editorial board, it’s headlined, “The Abolition of Slavery,” and after talking about the abolitionist efforts in the north, they talk about abolitionists this way. So again, 1859 the libs made me do it, from the New York Times editorial board, they’re talking about abolitionists in the north. Quote:
“They invoke national action upon what is and must remain a local evil. If experience proves anything, it proves that the Abolition movement has retarded emancipation, and increased the evil it sought to remedy. Until the active crusade of Northern and British Abolition was commenced, the public mind in the Southern States was far from having taken on that tone of defiant, resolute hostility to emancipation which it has since assumed. The thoughtful minds of the South were beginning to consider the relation of Slavery to the social and political well-being of the communities where it exists, and to study the possibility of remedy for what was almost universally felt to be an evil. How greatly all this is changed, every day’s observation suffices to show, — and the change has been perfectly natural and inevitable. The clamor and pressure of Abolition was a hostile movement, menacing to the peace, and offensive to the pride, of Southern States. It was resented and resisted as such, and thousands of men who had previously been friendly to emancipation were compelled, when they found themselves beset by this new peril, to abandon their ground, or at all events forego all open efforts for its maintenance. Instead of being left to work out their own social problems for themselves, the Southern States found themselves compelled to assume the attitude of self-defence. And from that time to this they have found it perfectly easy to stifle every attempt to discuss the Slavery question upon its merits at home, by connecting it, however unjustly, in the public mind with this hostile crusade from without. Emancipation in Missouri would be a very easy matter but for this unfortunate feature of the movement.”
The article concludes like this, quote:
“The very best thing that could possibly be done towards the abolition of Slavery would be for the North to stop talking about it.
“Ten years of absolute silence would do more than fifty of turmoil and hostility, towards a peaceful removal of the evil. It is quite possible that the Abolition crusade may force a bloody and violent termination of the system, but this no sane man desires: and any other solution of the problem is infinitely retarded by the incessant intermeddling of parties who have neither responsibility nor power in regard to the subject. The great necessity is to let the South alone, — to leave them leisure to think of their own affairs, — to throw upon them the necessity of studying their own condition and of looking into their own future. So long as we engross their thoughts by alarming their fears, they have neither time nor inclination to examine the question except from this single point of view.
“Emancipation, whenever it comes, must be the work of the Slave States themselves. They must adopt it from a conviction of its necessity to their own well-being.”
Adam: Right. So this is the original, ‘The libs forced me to be fascist by overplaying their hand.’ The South was at some point, through some kind of moral awakening, I’m not sure through what mechanism or what leverage but was just going to wake up and decide that slavery was bad and forfeit all their money at their leisure, literally at their leisure is what they say. So let’s fast forward a hundred years or so. We saw a similar posture with the Republican victories as a backlash to the sort of hippie dippie ’60s as well as, of course, the Civil Rights Movement. One example in 1968, when Richard Nixon won the presidential election, it was often said because of the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement and other progressive mobilizations.
In May of 1973, the conservative Commentary Magazine published an interview with multiple writers headlined, “Nixon, the Great Society, and the Future of Social Policy — A Symposium.” One of the guests, historian Christopher Lasch, posited that multiple reactionary presidents were elected as reactions to the encroachments of those fighting for labor rights and racial justice. Lasch offered the following analysis, quote:
“The pro-labor legislation of the New Deal set off an anti-labor backlash when unorganized white-collar workers and professionals, originally attracted to the New Deal, began to feel themselves ground between the millstones of Big Business and Big Labor, victimized by inflation, and generally ignored. By 1952 the middle classes were ready for Eisenhower.”
He would go on to say, quote:
“The white working class also bore the main burden of school desegregation, while suburban liberals applauded from the sidelines. In addition the working class and the lower-middle class had to suffer the indignity of being called white racists. It is not altogether surprising that the white working class now supports Nixon, though not with much enthusiasm.”
Nima: Right. They begrudgingly, Adam, because they were called racist had to begrudgingly support Nixon.
Adam: The indignity of being called racist.
Nima: Right. Exactly.
Adam: Yeah, this is kind of a shortened gross cat here, whether they voted for Nixon before or after they were called racist, we can never really know. He would go on to say, quote:
“A vague sense that things are out of joint, that values and standards are collapsing, that respect for authority has declined, troubles people at almost every social level. Because the Left has only ridiculed these fears, those who are troubled by the growing disorder they see around them turn to the Right, which promises to restore order even though in reality it has no idea of how to do so.”
So to be clear, reaction to left-wing progress is a real thing, right? Reactionary politics, by definition, are reactionary, that’s where the name comes from. But this analysis doesn’t blame the reaction itself, again, funded by cynical and dark forces, funded by far right, anti communist, you know, aligned with segregationists, aligned with various spook shows, but it’s actually the social movements themselves that are presented as the cause of it with the implication being is that if they were just sort of quieter or nicer or they they didn’t protest at all.
Nima: Right, if they didn’t do as much, if they weren’t, and certainly if they weren’t at all successful.
Adam: Right. And so we have this analysis of the white working class, which of course, is really the kind of usually just mean white men, I think it’s fair to say, or white people as this Hulk-like character, where our job is to sort of tiptoe around them and to not unleash the sort of racist hawk from within. Otherwise, they’re just kind of normal jovial next door neighbors who mow their lawn, who don’t possess any reactionary policy ideas or voting habits. This again, it sort of achieves two birds with one stone, it sort of justifies and rationalizes and provides a moral justification for reactionary politics for the listener who happens to be voting for these people and also blames what is to a large extent the victims, although there are exceptions of the victims of reactionary politics for their own, they sort of had a coming, right?
Nima: Right, right. I mean, in other words, we’re to believe that activism and advocacy for justice, for expanded rights, representation, recognition of inclusion, and liberation forces, otherwise well meaning, non ideological people to suddenly just become foaming bigots, rabid racists, antidemocratic nativists, that’s the cause of it. They weren’t that before or if they were it was so dormant that it didn’t matter.
A similar analysis — that left-wing activism necessarily breeds conservatism — has been applied to the electoral victory of Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s.
So, in March 1985, this is after Reagan’s reelection, the Washington Post ran a piece titled “Lefties for Reagan,” claiming that, after both the Cuban Revolution and Vietnam War, the quote-unquote “Left” had become too aggressively anti-imperialist; too anti-American and mean to the American bourgeoisie; and too soft on Cuba, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and the DPRK, North Korea. Written by an unnamed but self-identified former, quote, “civil rights and antiwar activist,” end quote, and co-author was a co-editor of the New Left Ramparts magazine — as an aside, we now know that these anonymous writers were the Marxist-turned-raging-conservative David Horowitz and his frequent collaborator Peter Collier — the piece, in the Washington Post in 1985, explained that, quote:
“Casting our ballots for Ronald Reagan was indeed a way of finally saying goodbye to…the self-aggrandizing romance with corrupt Third Worldism; to the casual indulgence of Soviet totalitarianism; to the hypocritical and self-dramatizing anti- Americanism which is the New Left’s bequest to mainstream politics.”
Its penultimate paragraph read, quote:
“We do not accept Reagan’s policies chapter and verse (especially in domestic policy, which we haven’t discussed here), but we agree with his vision of the world as a place increasingly inhospitable to democracy and increasingly dangerous for America.”
The following year, this time published in the Village Voice, David Horowitz wrote an article headlined, quote, “Why I Am No Longer a Leftist.” In it, after burnishing his past radical credentials, Horowitz revealed what made him go right: it was his close association with the Black Panther Party, which he described as, quote, “a criminal gang that preyed on the black ghetto itself.” End quote.
Adam: Fast forward to the 1990s, this concept became conventional wisdom. Democratic “strategist” James Carville expanded upon this idea in the early ’90s, as one of Bill Clinton’s chief advisers to his campaign. To cite just one example — which happens to be the most infamous — Carville was the architect of Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” in May of 1992, during Clinton’s presidential campaign in which Carville and Clinton equated musician Sister Souljah’s lyrics to the hate speech of David Duke because she said she understood why Blackpeople may feel resentful towards white people in one of her lyrics. Clinton then got up in front of a room full of Black leaders including Jesse Jackson and officially denounced Sister Souljah to pander to racist sentiments. Carville had made his career out of pushing similar kinds of left punching and racist pandering because he believes that that’s the sort of avenue to win broad political politics.
Nima: Right. Again, back to the idea of the Real People, right? What the Real People want.
Adam: Yeah. Asterix without upsetting rich liberal donors, right? That’s really the kind of huge qualifier here because there are certainly other means you can build coalitions. But if you’re going to not want to piss off rich, liberal, almost exclusively white donors, one way to do it is to find African American one offs to make an example of to do a cheap pot shot, and to earn credibility from the Washington Post editorial board crowd with the general idea that you don’t want to alienate the so-called white working class, and so you have to just pander to their racism. Now, this really began to accelerate, of course, with the rise of Trump.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, in the mid 2010s we saw this over and over again. So for example, writing an opinion piece for the Chicago Tribune in 2015, during the campaign, conservative commentator S.E. Cupp proclaimed that readers should, quote, “Blame liberals for the rise of Donald Trump.” She attributed Trump’s popularity to a reaction against what she termed, quote, “unrelenting demands by the left for increasingly preposterous levels of political correctness over the past decade.” Trump, S.E. Cupp continued, quote, “is seen as the antidote.”
Similarly, a Politico article written by Rob Hoffman from November 20, 2016, just after the election, was headlined, quote, “How the Left Created Trump,” and in it he characterized Trump’s rise as the fault of a perceived ascendant liberalism and activism, seeming to make the point that we shouldn’t even try to improve the lives of the majority of people, lest it backfire in the form of resentment politics and put a right-wing firebrand in power, as had just happened. Hoffman writes this, again in Politico from 2016, quote:
“Trump’s rise in popularity — and ultimately his election to the presidency — should be seen as a long-building reaction to grass-roots liberal activism that came to dominate the cultural landscape and claim victory after victory in the social arena, whether the issue was abortion or gay marriage or transgender rights, always accompanied by that same disdain for right-wing views as worthy of the Stone Age.”
End quote. Hoffman would them continue, quote:
“While there is a clear need to rectify the indisputable disadvantages faced by America’s marginalized peoples — from the LGBTQ community to Muslims and people of color — Trump’s victory seems to indicate that unmitigated social activism can have unintended consequences.”
Adam: Nominally, at that point, progressive David Rubin, who ended up just becoming a right-winger, as most of these guys do, who was then working for the Young Turks, tweeted out after Trump’s election, quote:
“It’s almost as if you endlessly call people bigots and racists they’ll eventually get fed up and turn on you.”
Because as we all know, the sun did not exist until the Babylonians gave it a name. So I did a recap of all this in November 2016 for FAIR, for my article, “Lashing Out at ‘Identity Politics,’ Pundits Blame Trump on Those Most Vulnerable to Trump.” So this is before the term woke became the go-to racialized pejorative.
Nima: Right it was still political correctness. PC politics.
Adam: Yeah, so it began just three days after the election where evergreen PC-blamer Bill Maher said the following to his roundtable of clapping guests.
Bill Maher: You’re outrageous with your politically correct bullshit and it does drive people away. And Islam. You know? Islam. Democrats, there is a terrorist attack, and Democrats’ reaction is “don’t be mean to Muslims,” instead of how can we solve the problem of shit blowing up in America.
Adam: Two days later, Vox would run a softball interview with Jon Haidt, a noted NYU social psychologist and noted diversity skeptic, to put it politely, whose big thing is about stereotype denial, the headline said, “Why Social Media Is Terrible for Multiethnic Democracies,” which sort of portends a very bad take. Ezra Klein tweeted out saying, “Interesting: Jon Haidt on why ‘diversity, immigration and multiculturalism’ are ripping apart Western democracies.” So here we have some real victim blaming coming up.
Nima: Ponder it.
Adam: Yeah. In which Haidt says, quote:
“Multiculturalism and diversity have many benefits, including creativity and economic dynamism, but they also have major drawbacks, which is that they generally reduce social capital and trust and they amplify tribal tendencies.”
Nima: That’s a chin-stroker. Yeah, so similarly, David Brooks in the New York Times would write this, “The Danger of a Dominant Identity.” In it writing, quote:
“But it’s not only racists who reduce people to a single identity. These days it’s the anti-racists, too. To raise money and mobilize people, advocates play up ethnic categories to an extreme degree.”
Adam: Yeah, so here we have a classic, they’re racist because you call them racist and the anti-racists are actually just as bad as the racists.
Nima: They’re just like racists.
Adam: Literally the same thing.
Nima: The very same day that David Brooks wrote that in the Times, The Washington Post published good old George Will, with an article, “Higher Education Is Awash with Hysteria. That Might Have Helped Elect Trump,” and in the piece Will cites a whole bunch of one off stories of your typical PC, college lefties, telling the reader this, quote:
“Academia should consider how it contributed to, and reflects Americans’ judgments pertinent to, Donald Trump’s election. The compound of childishness and condescension radiating from campuses is a reminder to normal Americans of the decay of protected classes — in this case, tenured faculty and cosseted students.”
Adam: Ah yes, the adjuncts making $26,000 are protected classes. Mark Lilla in the New York Times, also the exact same day, the George Will, David Brooks and Mark Lilla articles are all on November 18, 10 days after the election, called “The End of Identity Liberalism.” Clearly there was some memo about when we need to blame people on college campuses for Trump.
Nima: Yeah. They were like, ‘We’re like 10 days into this, we got to put out the message.’
Adam: No, yeah, there needs to be scapegoats because this is before they quite settled on Russia. It’s sort of, you know, Jill Stein voters, it’s anyone but the Clinton campaign, right? Or the fact that America is also just extremely foaming and reactionary. So the same day, literally the exact same day as the George Will and David Brooks piece on November 18, 2016, The New York Times also published Mark Lilla’s essay, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” in which he wrote, quote:
“But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions.”
Seems like a bit of an oversimplification of what happened, just asserted, there’s no evidence for this. And then of course, he takes the sort of glib potshots at transgender people which is required by law when doing these takes. He would go on to say, quote:
“Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the “first X to do Y” — is told and retold. Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own. No major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.”
Except, of course, a European paper did. The Guardian actually had a very long profile on a transgendered activist in Egypt the previous year. But he apparently wanted to make a claim about the fact that Europe would never do this thing that in fact a European publication did.
Nima: Well, and it’s such a smug reference, right transgender people in Egypt.
Adam: Oh, it’s so trivializing.
Nima: Yeah, like, ‘Oh, who cares that has no real bearing on the reality of politics,’ right? And yet Americans are so focused on identity to the detriment of the real issues. It’s a really strange take, obviously, but one that does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of who Mark Lilla and, you know, by extension, those who agree with them, seek to blame for our political fortunes, and who they absolve, of course.
In September of the next year, from all of these articles, this now being 2017, The Atlantic ran a piece by writer Peter Beinart entitled, quote, “The Rise of the Violent Left,” which blamed many of the usual suspects — climate and racial justice demonstrators in Portland and Berkeley, “antifa,” anarchists and the like — for, quote, “fuel[ing] the fears of Trump supporters,” end quote and thus accelerating right-wing authoritarianism. Specifically, Beinart lamented the loosely defined groups’ efforts to prevent fascists from holding rallies and other political events.
Telling a supposedly cautionary tale of the harms of the “violent left,” Beinart wrote this, quote:
“When antifascists forced the cancellation of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Parade, Trump supporters responded with a ‘March for Free Speech.’ Among those who attended was Jeremy Christian, a burly ex-con draped in an American flag, who uttered racial slurs and made Nazi salutes. A few weeks later, on May 25, a man believed to be Christian was filmed calling antifa ‘a bunch of punk bitches.’
“The next day, Christian boarded a light-rail train and began yelling that ‘colored people’ were ruining the city. He fixed his attention on two teenage girls, one African American and the other wearing a hijab, and told them ‘to go back to Saudi Arabia’ or ‘kill themselves.’ As the girls retreated to the back of the train, three men interposed themselves between Christian and his targets. ‘Please,’ one said, ‘get off this train.’ Christian stabbed all three. One bled to death on the train. One was declared dead at a local hospital. One survived.”
Beinart concludes his piece like this, quote:
“Revulsion, fear, and rage are understandable. But one thing is clear. The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.”
Now, interestingly, Beinart cites no examples of physical violence from the so-called “violent Left,” which is the title of the piece, but however he recounts multiple acts of violence from the right. Yet those on the right, he’s claiming, are apparently the real victims here, right, prevented from exercising their right which then doubles back on itself and turns them violent because those pesky black bloc-ers want to infringe on Republicans’ rights to speak or to peaceably assemble, and so therefore, the backlash is their fault, right, is Antifa’s fault.
Adam: Yeah, this sort of these white nationalists were kind of otherwise going to go about their business until they were provoked. One of the more annoying examples of this and someone we talked about on the show quite a bit, because he’s horrible, is Senator-elect from Ohio J.D. Vance. The New York Post ran a piece in June of 2021 headlined, “How liberals turned on JD Vance, working-class author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’.” “Working-class” is a strange descriptor for someone who has a law degree from Yale, worked in a corporate law firm and at a number of Silicon Valley investment firms, including Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, and now has an estimated net worth of $7 million. But nevertheless, the article contended that liberals and leading media feted J.D. Vance around 2016–2017, the time Hillbilly Elegy was released, then abandoned him as he expressed openly right-wing political ambitions and points of views.
This is, of course, kind of true. Vance is quoted in the article as saying, quote:
“‘Once it became clear that I was more on the side of Trump and the conservatives than I was on the side of the left, it went pretty hard. Before Trump was elected, people were trying to understand the forgotten man, the white working class, however you want to put it.’
“After Trump won, ‘it quickly became one of two things: Either these voters are all racists or Russia hacked the election.
“The whole culture of the media has shifted from, ‘Let’s try to understand the other half of the country,’ to ‘Let’s just beat up on the other half of the country.’”
Months later, in January of 2022, the Washington Post chimed in to speculate on why Vance had, quote, “adopted a bellicose persona at odds with the sensitive, bookish J.D. of his memoir.” Headlined “The Radicalization of J.D. Vance,” the analysis, though with some requisite light criticisms here and there, was either incredibly naive or knowing PR for Vance and would write, quote:
“Vance’s new political identity isn’t so much a façade or a reversal as an expression of an alienated worldview that is, in fact, consistent with his life story. And now there’s an ideological home for that worldview: Vance has become one of the leading political avatars of an emergent populist-intellectual persuasion that tacks right on culture and left on economics.”
Which of course is absolutely not true that they turn left in economics, that’s a total fabrication. That piece provides no support for that, he does not support the Jobs Act, does not support union. Yeah, it’s a total lie, but whatever. The piece would go on to say, quote:
“The project is animated by a real-life political gambit: that as progressives weaken the Democratic Party with unpopular cultural attitudes, the right can swoop in and pick off multiracial working-class voters.”
Evidently we’re expected to believe in this article that Vance and his right-wing funders, who constantly lambaste wokeness and China as a threat to the American worker, that they somehow really want to attract a multi racial voters kind of in earnest.
Nima: In a post from July 3, 2021, written by Kevin Drum, headlined, “If you hate the culture wars, blame liberals,” Drum writes this, quote:
“Democrats have stoked the culture wars by getting more extreme on social issues and Republicans have used this to successfully cleave away a segment of both the non-college white vote and, more recently, the non-college nonwhite vote.”
And of course, how can we not mention James Carville just one more time when that same month, July 2021, he took to CNN to deliver his perennial message that any policy with the faintest whiff of meaningful change would be electoral poison for the Democrats. Now, this is after Carvel gave an interview with Vox in the spring of that year making the same exact point. In both interviews, Carville also insisted that terms like, quote, “communities of color” and the term “Latinx” — not, say, thing like austerity politics or violent rhetoric toward gay and transgender people — that those terms would alienate potential Democratic voters.
And on November 3, 2021 PBS NewsHour host Judy Woodruff asked Carville why he believed Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial race, and what went wrong for the Democratic party. Here’s Carville’s response:
James Carville: What went wrong was this stupid wokeness all right. Don’t just look at Virginia and New Jersey, look at Long Island, look at Buffalo, look at Minneapolis, even look at Seattle, Washington. I mean, this Defund the Police lunacy takes Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools, I mean, people see that, and it just really has a suppressive effect all across the country. The Democrats, some of these people that need to go to a woke detox center or something. I mean, they’re expressions of language that people just don’t use, and there’s a backlash and a frustration at that.
Adam: Yeah, and again, with all of these, Terry McAuliffe was the most anti-woke, normie, white, McKinsey and Company candidate so one of the beauties of this idea that the far left is responsible for the right is that even if the far left has no power, if they don’t win any primaries, if they have no say or constituency within a centrist, normie, CIA, Wall Street guy, milk toast guy they throw up to run against Republicans, that they’re staining the brand. So it’s again, it goes back to being unfalsifiable. So even someone like Terry McAuliffe, the kind of insiders, insiders’ insider, right? When he loses, it’s still wokeness’ fault. It’s a skeleton key for whatever problem we have. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s the overreaching left’s problem.
Nima: Yeah. The wokes did it.
Adam: Right. It’s not that the guy was uncharismatic or that he didn’t provide any vision for the future or didn’t provide an alternative narrative to the fears around critical race theory and other kinds of right-wing boogeyman or didn’t respond aggressively enough that he didn’t stand for anything. No, it’s the fact that students at the University of, you know, whatever bullshit liberal arts school, were too mean on some stories on Tucker. I mean, again, it’s unclear how you can even measure these things, much less overcome it, right? Because if you’re going to nominate all the anti-woke guys, from Biden to McAuliffe to whatever, and they still lose, that they’re still going to somehow blame the wokes, even though they have, again, they have zero actual power, because it’s a win-win situation, you can’t lose.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Daniel Denvir, host of The Dig podcast on Jacobin Radio and author of the book All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics As We Know It, which was published in 2020 by Verso Books. Dan’s going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Daniel Denvir. Dan, great to have you back on Citations Needed.
Daniel Denvir: Really great to be here. I love your podcast.
Adam: Oh, well, thank you, and I yours. So I’m excited to have you on to talk about this. I’m very excited to talk about the topic in general, but specifically with you because I know it’s something that you’ve thought a lot about. But the idea that the left kind of pushes otherwise sensible, normie, liberals and centrists into the arms of the far right, it’s a trope that dates back many years, if not decades, as we documented at the top of the show, but it really kind of began to accelerate and became its own sub genre take with the rise of Trump in 2015 and 2016. So I want to sort of begin there. There was a cottage industry of explanations as to why a plurality of voters elected such an objectively vile, cruel and racist person in Trump. And the idea that a sizable chunk of these voters did so not because they agreed with the vile, cruel and racist positions of Trump, but because they wanted to sort of strike a blow, a protest blow against the woke far left contingent. This was kind of before woke became the preferred racialized pejorative, this was back when it was political correctness or any other kind of shorthand for trans bathrooms or whatever. Days after the election, David Brooks, Bill Maher, Mark Lilla, John Haidt, and many others blame so-called identity politics for driving people to Trump. I want to sort of begin at that point, November/ December of 2016. Why do you think this narrative was so attractive? It’s obviously very unfalsifiable. I don’t know how to show that’s not true. I guess maybe there is some statistical way that you may be aware of, but it does seem like it sort of gets everybody off the hook.
Nima: That’s why you’re here. Yeah. To prove John Haidt right.
Adam: Yeah, yeah. Did you do a statistical analysis? But I want you to talk about why you think that’s attractive and who it kind of served and why because it was very, very common immediately after the election.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah, I mean, I will first answer the question of why it’s attractive and what function it serves, but I would later on like to attempt to demonstrate that it’s definitely, verifiably false. So, why do people blame left-wing, woke mobs for driving otherwise calm, reasonable, sensible Americans into becoming far right extremists? I mean, the narrative, like you suggested, is attractive to extreme centrist pundits and politicians, because it washes the hands of the neoliberalized Democratic Party and the old Republican establishment of any culpability for making MAGA a reality. Instead, conveniently, it blames us, their political opponents on the left. And I mean, I can’t say for sure if that’s their intention, some of the people making the argument, I imagine, probably sincerely, believe it, or whatever that means, but that is the arguments principle function without a doubt. The culpability is very clear here, the Republican Party, I mean, it’s almost not even worth repeating, because it’s so obvious. The culpability of the Republican Party as it’s existed for decades, in making Trumpism a reality from Goldwater through Reagan, Gingrich’s Republican revolution, the Tea Party, it’s pretty obvious why the Weekly Standard, Lincoln Project types are complicit in the right becoming evermore just deranged and why they would not like to be blamed for that. But the Democratic Party is also very, very complicit here, as well, which is less obvious to a lot of people. I mean, you mentioned the book that I published in 2020, which was basically about the Democratic Party’s role in working with Republicans to preside over just the steady immiseration of working class Americans for decades and decades, and then legitimating the demonization of immigrants as the scapegoat, the principle scapegoat for that immiseration. So the function it serves is pretty clear, and it’s to get them off the hook for the monster they’ve created.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, part of this also speaks to, I mean, something we’ve talked about a whole bunch on Citations Needed, which is this idea of civility. The left has gotten so shouty, and so cancel-ey. That’s really what’s doing it. People just don’t want to hear that anymore. And yet, somehow, then the alleged reaction to the breakdown of civility in politics is not somehow to go to, you know, those who maybe collectively want to make people’s lives materially better, or, you know, enhance access to rights that should be inalienable, or at least legally enshrined, but no, the woke mob is so annoyingly shrill, that the only recourse, the only refuge for the normals, who just, you know, don’t want to hear that cacophony anymore, is to go full blown Nazi. What do you think this idea of the, you know, reaction to this kind of scold-ey shrillness is to then be like, ‘Oh, I can finally be the Dennis Leary asshole that I truly am.’
Adam: And you made me do it.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah. To paraphrase Michelle Obama from years back, you know, when we go low, you know, they go into the burning pits of the deepest hell, that’s what you get for going low, is just people becoming absolute Nazis, for just being mean on the internet, even for a moment, that one moment of weakness. I mean, one basic problem here is that this constant focus on, you know, the so-called swing voters in the middle who are swinging between Democrats and Republicans, which totally ignores — and this is insight, an insight other people have had, I’m not making this up here — but ignores the swing voters on the left, people who are swinging between voting for Democrats and voting for third party or voting more likely for absolutely no one at all because they’re totally alienated from a political system that has done nothing for them their entire lives. So Republicans understand the importance of keeping their base fired up, Democrats hold their base in contempt.
So that’s one problem is the whole basic framing of which voters were concerned about. But I will stipulate that it’s indeed a problem that an increasing proportion in recent decades of white working class people have been voting Republican, particularly since the great financial crisis, and the problem with the argument that blames wokeness for doing that is — and this is where my promised demonstration using history that this is wrong — that blames wokeness is that it gets the historical sequencing all wrong. White working class people did not get pushed out of the Democratic coalition by anti-police protests or people with pronouns. They were pushed out by the Democratic establishment. This was the project of the New Democrats led by Bill Clinton, it was their explicit program — something that Lily Geisler, this amazing historian has written about at great length — an explicit program of turning away from the working class, not just the white working class, but the whole working class, turning away from them and unions, towards suburbanites, and professionals, and so white working class people, not all of them, but many, were for much of the 20th century embedded in the Democratic Party through institutions, namely, labor unions, and those unions had a certain position in the United States’ social, political, economic order, and what happened was the neoliberalized Democratic Party alongside American capitalism going into crisis in the ’70s, and reconstituting itself in neoliberal form, that severed the link between working class people including, but by no means exclusively, white working class people, severed them from the Democratic Party by separating them from those unionized jobs and from their unions and then imposing a new economic and social order with an entirely different moral sensibility. This, you know, there was an ethos, not trying to be pollyannaish about the past by any means, but you know, ethos of solidarity and social welfare replaced by one that prizes individual achievement in a zero sum world.
So there are these moments of crisis that the Democratic Party has exploited to drive working class people away from the party, and Obama is a case in point here. On the eve of Obama’s election, working class white voters measured very imperfectly by non-college graduates, they were more or less evenly split between the two major parties. And I mean, that doesn’t include the large number who were alienated and not voting for anyone. But today, it’s two thirds nearly voting Republican. So what happened? What happened was a once in a generation event, the global financial crisis, and the government’s response to it. A once in a generation event that had the capacity to radically remake people’s identities, subjectivities, political allegiances, and the Democratic Party, led by Obama at the time, was perceived, understandably, as bailing out the banks, whereas the right, with the Tea Party, swept in and framed the crisis as one where big government had allied simultaneously with the greedy big banks and the parasitic poor people to screw over hardworking, everyday Americans. And I just can’t overemphasize enough how critical that 2010 election that wiped out democratic state legislators, that would never be reelected in places all over this country, Obama won Indiana, something like that will never, or not anytime soon, happen again. Those are the kinds of things that radically remake people’s political consciousnesses, identities and allegiances, not getting annoyed by something someone said to them on Twitter. It’s just an absurd assessment of how history operates.
Adam: Yeah, I think that’s what made the kind of Hillary Clinton adopting this kind of DEI language in 2016 do bizarre because her husband and her 2008 campaign against Obama, deliberately played to racism and pandered to racists. Hardworking white Americans. Obviously, Clinton who had his, because again, if you’re doing the sort of unpopular neoliberal economic policy, you have kind of two tracks to try to pick off the so-called moderate white swing voter, you can appeal to upwardly mobile professionals using superficial appeals to, you know, social justice that don’t really mean much, but kind of sound good for people with law degrees or you can try to peel off Bubba with racism. They did the Bubba racism thing in the ’90s, quite explicitly, and then suddenly, around 2014 there was this shift where ‘Oh, actually, no, Bernie Sanders in all his supporters are racist, and we’re the anti-racists.’ I’m just like, what? In 2008 you ran the most, you ran a pretty shamefully race baiting campaign against Obama and I think that kind of shows you that they realized that they had got as much out of that lane as they could and then realized that the only thing, that they needed some kind of angle to latch on to and so they adopted a kind of superficial, for want of a better term identity politics. So that always struck me as strange people have the memory of goldfish, but I want to, I want to sort of be fair here and kind of try to prop up the strongest argument for those who make this point. Strong being a relative term, I don’t think it’s actually that strong, which is the idea that liberals and leftists have increasingly been quick to banish, yell at, censor, morally condemn rather than try to convince or argue. I think this is kind of true. But I also think it emerged from a place of frustration with a concern troll posture from the right where you always, you’ve constantly had to re litigate and debate the basic humanity of Black people, trans people, gay people, and that kind of gets exhausting after a while, because I don’t think Dinesh D’Souza is really interested in having a debate, I don’t think the 75th debate on the campus of Middlebury College is really going to be very, so a part of me is like, yeah, okay, so we decided to just yell at people that works, that’s fine with me. But I want to sort of talk about this dynamic, because on the one hand, I do think that is kind of true. But again, I also think it’s sort of pollyannaish about where the professional right comes into play, which is, I don’t think they’re really concerned with debate. To me, it’s about the power dynamics of the person you’re talking to, or trying to convince, right? I don’t think, like Bret Stevens recently published a column where he said, ‘Oh, I, you know, I was finally convinced of the truth of climate change, because I flew out to Greenland,’ and I’m like, you know what I love about this is how scalable it is? Let me just fly every climate denying American out to Greenland for the price of $7 trillion, maybe we can convince 51.4 percent of them. Yeah.
Daniel Denvir: And it won’t cost a lot of carbon either to do that.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. And John Chait says, ‘Oh, look,’ you know, John Chait holds up and says, ‘look what happens if you try to convince rather than try to get someone fired.’ I’m like, but Bret Stevens is not like some normie, 26 year old, half Latino, half white Uber driver who listens to Joe Rogan and is curious about, who has a kind of hodgepodge, he’s not some under, he’s a political operative who is there to sort of repackage the post Trump Republican Party. And that, to me seems to be the issue. I think, all these people, all these centrists all, you know, the Bill Maher’s and Lillas, all the people I notice on Twitter, they get yelled at all day, and they like, they’d say, ‘Oh, well, this is not good politics,’ and it’s like, yeah, because you’re a rich piece of shit, who’s not going to be convinced anyway, this is not like door-to-door retail politics, which most union organizers and people who do real organizing around these things, this is a different, you may as well be in fucking Greek or Chinese, right? It doesn’t mean anything. So I want you to talk about this idea that the left has gotten super scold-y. I think that’s true in certain contexts, but I actually think it’s mostly not true, but maybe I’m pandering to our listeners. I don’t know. Tell me if you think that’s a fair description of the criticism.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah, I mean, first, before I answer that, I do want to very much agree with what you said at the top of your question about Clinton era social politics. I think it is very important given just how unhinged from historical reality the debate over all of this has become today. Very important to emphasize that the very same neoliberalized Democratic Party that in the ’90s was so aggressively selling out the working class, white and otherwise, was not at all woke, like not a little bit. Very, very reactionary. Their attempts to woo this more high end constituency were accompanied by a major crackdown on immigrants, the end of welfare as we knew it, mass policing and mass incarceration, the Defense of Marriage Act. So yeah, I mean, that’s an important piece of context. But to answer your question, I think it’s very safe to say that people like Bret Stevens having a fragile ego does not explain deep structural transformations in American politics that have taken place in the last few decades. That just doesn’t make sense. So, yes, yell at Bret Stevens, if that makes you feel good on Twitter, and it’s probably like, there’s probably something healthy about that, maybe. But yes, that is very different from yelling at individuals, which, you know, ordinary everyday people, whatever, yelling at individuals is not the way to change their mind. In fact, you can’t really change people’s minds at all, I don’t think by talking to them, even if it’s really nice. I mean, and to the extent that you can sometimes that doesn’t create the sort of system level mass changes in ideology that we need to change politics in this country.
Adam: You have to pair the convincing with some meaningful material policy changes.
Nima: You need to see the benefit.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah, and people need to be reinvented in communities, organizations, institutions — like unions, which I keep returning to — and there is actually good social scientific research, being a member of a union makes you less likely to be racist, and before your listeners yell at you, yes, of course, there are many racists who are members of labor unions, but it does make people less racist, which is not shocking. Just as the dismantling of unions made people available for right-wing ideology in a way that they were less available to when they were union members. The corollary of that is that we have to recreate institutions where people can build power together through concrete struggles over the conditions of their own lives, whether as workers, as tenants, as over policed people,, whatever. And then that’s how people’s minds change, but not through, just as people’s minds don’t get changed to the right by encountering scold-y people on the left, on Twitter, and it can’t be scold-y, but mostly that just kind of makes it suck to be on the left sometimes is how shitty we are to each other on Twitter. That’s like the shitty thing about that and people should be better comrades. I think that’s like the real problem that there’s so much sectarianism and meanness within the left, but that’s not turning people in some structurally big way into right-wingers. Yeah. It’s bizarre. People are just too online as well, and so they are political analysts, and they don’t read their, you know, people like Bret Stevens probably don’t read that many books.
Nima: I mean, the flight to Greenland is pretty long.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah, but their analysis is based on whatever annoys them on Twitter.
Nima: Well, right. I mean, so much of this, I think, speaks to, I’m going to talk about Adam as if he’s not here right now, to a piece that Adam wrote in FAIR way back in 2016. This idea that the reactionary ideological switcheroo effectively blames the victims of the far right for the power of the far right, right? It’s not a call in from a concerned ally, it’s rather painting anyone with any social justice grievance as fundamentally anti-white, right, like an anti-white radical that’s out to get you, get your family, get your job, whatever, right? Can we talk about this idea that the white male voter is again centered in this entire frame of argument or political understanding, as a hulk like, you know, creature, and that the point of moderate sensible, again, kind of civil politics is to avoid, at all costs, awakening the beast of their inner reactionary, right? That they have to always be top of mind because they just don’t say anything to piss them off because they are just one snarky comment away from going full on Hitler.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah, I mean, first, like I said before, it’s a weird, obsessive focus on a certain portion of the electorate. But that said, that portion does matter, as do other portions in terms of winning, which is a big part of what I think we’re all thinking about when we choose to think about electoral politics and beyond electoral politics. People’s ideologies matter for a lot of other reasons that are of interest to us on the left beyond presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, whatever, elections.
So it assumes, it’s bizarrely infantilizing, as though white working class people operate, their brains operate in a distinctly different way than others that I think is probably generated mostly amongst white professionals who only have a sort of distant National Geographic-like relationship to white working class people. It doesn’t at all explain how different forms of identity can become more or less salient for a person is their identity as part of a working class that might be multiracial, more salient, or is their identity as white people more salient, or as a Americans or as white Americans, there are all kinds of identities that people inhabit, often simultaneously, and that history that we were talking about earlier, that history, particularly since the neoliberal turn, disembedding people from organizations that created a grounded material basis for more progressive ideologies, that vacuum is then filled by other identities, like whiteness, and just presuming that there’s some timeless immemorial, I don’t know, like Scotch-Irish sensibility or something that makes all white working class people tick, and if you use a pronoun in front of them, they’re gonna go fascist, it doesn’t allow us to understand how white working class people have behaved in very different ways politically, in very different moments in very different contexts throughout American history, it doesn’t make sense.
Nima: Yeah, they’re all just like subjects from Walker Evans photographs.
Adam: Because the other side of the coin, I think, suffers from similar fallacies, which is that there’s this kind of fix to inextricably racist, white working class voter who there’s like, you shouldn’t make zero effort to try to win over in any way, which is its own form of anti-politics, right? Because in my mind thinking, well, what the fuck are we doing then?
Daniel Denvir: Yes.
Adam: The point of politics, it’s an evangelical enterprise, and I don’t know if any evangelical enterprise, whether it’s, you know, Baptism or Methodism or Islam or communism, where you write off whole populations, you know, 1/3 of the country’s white men, right? And then I guess, suddenly, again, the meaningful percentage who voted for Obama, but then voted for Trump that they got more racist, I guess? I don’t know how that works exactly. Or they were not racist. But anyway, it’s confusing to me. And this serves a similar function that these are kind of non dynamic, you know, the kind of the extreme centrist says we have to pander to their racism and not spook them with Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, but then the corporate liberal mercenary says ‘Oh, well, they’re all, fuck them anyway let’s just ignore them,’ because the real reason of course they do that is because they don’t want address economic populism as one way of rearranging those identities, right? That it is a sort of fixed moral failing on the part of people and that it’s a useless waste of time to try to win them over and it’s like yeah, I mean, again, politics are about coalitions, and those things get really messy, and if you just had coalitions with people who had the most perfect ideological proclivities, then you really wouldn’t ever build coalitions. But that’s different than like, are they, you know, but at the same time, obviously, you’re not gonna build a political coalition with Richard Spencer, because he also supports Medicare for All, right? I mean, there are limits to that, obviously. But you can’t be that precious about these things, and it strikes me as both of those dynamics serve a similar function, which is to say that there’s nothing we can do so let’s all just forget any kind of rearranging of economic, left-wing politics, and let’s just sort of assume that everything’s fixed and hand millions of dollars over to consultants.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah, and that goes back to the distinction that you’re drawing earlier about the difference of how to think about relating to right-wing leaders and ordinary people with right-wing ideas, and I’m doing a bunch of tenant organizing right now in Rhode Island and a couple of our tenant leaders are without a doubt Trump supporters, but in terms of the campaign, they are behaving like communists.
Daniel Denvir: I hope they’re not listening to this.
Nima: This will not be shared with them.
Daniel Denvir: And that is, is a complex and contradictory and sometimes uncomfortable process? Definitely. Is it the only way I believe that we can build working class and left-wing power in this country? Also yes. But yeah, I think that’s right, that there is a corollary on the left, and particularly maybe amongst like, liberal elites, to this argument that, you know, don’t bang on the white working class guys cage or he’ll flip out, which is, as you say, this argument that any kind of push forward for racial justice or justice for any sort of oppressed people will inevitably face white racist reaction, because white people are just fundamentally, almost biologically racist, and there’s some truth to the fact that any push forward for justice for oppressed groups will elicit a reaction given that the history of this country is so thoroughly racist, something we don’t need to get into the details of for Citations Needed listeners. It is true that, you know, for example, any attempt to include excluded people into the mid 20th century social and economic New Deal compact would have generated some white racist reaction. I mean, Adam, you’re in Chicago, where Black people when they tried to move in to white neighborhoods got their houses firebombed, and that was the kind of violence that Black people faced in their struggle to in a sense universalize the New Deal promised from which they’d been excluded in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Nima: Thankfully, I’m in New York where there’s never been racism.
Daniel Denvir: Where everything’s been totally chill, as Spike Lee has demonstrated in his past films.
Nima: And as current education and housing policy continues to affirm.
Daniel Denvir: Yes, everything’s very chill, lots of multiracial bonhomie, definitely no problems to look at, especially in what are those schools called, those admit only schools. But Adam, like you said, the analysis has to be more dynamic in that. So looking back to that history, which I think is really key, in the ’60s and ’70s, this push to universalize the promises of economic security of the New Deal from which Black people had been excluded, it took place at the very moment when that system, in part because of those exclusions, was going into severe crisis. There was a crisis because of stagflation, oil shock, intensifying global competition, and capitalists, so capitalists were tearing up the New Deal settlement, and going on the offensive against labor and against the welfare state at the very moment that women, Black people, queer people, etcetera, were fighting to get a piece of something, and it was getting torn apart at that very moment. So that means that in that moment, white people are reacting to this in a context of newly intensified scarcity. If that context had been one of plenty, instead, one of a deepening welfare state, rather than one that was getting eviscerated, I think that would have mitigated, though certainly not eliminated the white reaction, like things are dynamic.
Nima: Yeah, abundance will create different outcomes than austerity, right? I mean, fundamentally, and so feeling like things are being taken away, is going to then produce a kind of backlash, as you’ve been saying. Without getting too deep into Bernie related things, I am really curious, though, about your take on how campaigns like Bernie Sanders,’ were such a threat to this idea of ‘Oh, well, you know, there’s a certain segment of the population that you just have to write off,’ and then with the whole kind of Bernie to Trump voter, seemed to then double back on itself and reaffirm these ideas that have been so long entrenched in, you know, whether it’s elite politics or kind of mainline media, talk about that, the threat and then the affirmation there in terms of how solidarity worked and then was broken.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah, I mean, it is pretty twisted that the very fact that Bernie could appeal to voters who might also find Trump appealing, was then used in like either, you know, great ignorance or incredibly bad faith, one of the two, to attempt to portray Bernie, and his kind of class struggle Social Democratic campaign for the presidency as a racist in some way, especially, to emphasize this again, coming from the sort of Clintonite political world, the people who brought us mass incarceration, the war on immigrants, I mean, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden all voted, and it was either 2006 or 2007, for the Secure Fence Act, which was signed into law by George W. Bush, which built like 600, 700 something miles of fencing that looks very much like Trump’s wall across the border.
Adam: It’s fencing, not a wall, buddy. Big difference between the two political parties.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah, it’s just the fence.
Adam: This is like the cages versus fence discussion. How we housed immigrants. When you’re getting to that degree of semantics, it’s not a good sign.
Daniel Denvir: Well, I mean, do you remember, it was sometime during the Trump administration, that Jon Favreau, he posted something on Twitter, a photo of two young girls sleeping on the floor of a cage was like, ‘Look at how monstrous this is,’ and it was monstrous, but it turned out the photo was from under the Obama administration, when Jon was working for him.
Daniel Denvir: I mean anyhow, that’s why none of us will ever stop being triggered by the 2016 primary, until the days that we die. I think fundamentally, there is class-based universal projects that are also fundamentally anti-racist that Bernie was not always perfectly, but I think very powerfully putting forward, and the real historical predecessor to that is Jesse Jackson’s social democratic Rainbow Coalition project of the 1980s, which was precisely trying to not, like today’s liberal elite identity politics, not just diversifying the upper ranks of this immiserating system that’s grinding people in the dust, which is an alienating form of identity politics. It’s not the primary thing driving people to the right, but that is alienating, that combination of being like, look how diverse Wall Street is, etcetera, that does alienate people. But it’s a sort of politics that precisely, that version of identity politics was precisely to emerge, precisely to kind of brutally replace that Rainbow Coalition identity politics of the 1980s, which was about stitching all of these particularities into a majority with a universalistic bent.
Adam: Yeah, I think about, for the episode we did on unions and film, I watched the film Pride. Basically, it’s about the solidarity between 1984 —
Daniel Denvir: The coal miners?
Adam: Yeah, and the radical gay and lesbian radical groups, they completely erased the fact that the guy that did it is a communist, because all the time I’m watching this movie, I’m like, oh, this guy’s totally got to be in the Communist Party, and then I look it up on Wikipedia and it’s like, oh, yeah, totally Communist Party. They have like one offhanded reference, and there’s like a hammer and sickle in the very far back. He starts doing fundraising as a gay and lesbian group for the miners strike to provide a labor support fund. And of course, they have the obligatory scene where he goes into this small town in Wales, and faces a lot of bigotry, but then he keeps, he sort of keeps kind of at it, right? He sort of faces the bigotry. Now, look, as someone who has never faced those kinds of vectors of oppression, it’s obviously much easier said than done, and I don’t want to be too romantic about it, and obviously it’s a fictionalization, although much of the basic outline is true, where he said, ‘Okay, we have a mutual,’ and they keep repeating this in the movie, it’s actually what the best part of the movie I think, is that like, where they say like, ‘Who are the minor strikes enemies?’ It’s Margaret Thatcher, cops and the tabloid papers. And who is the gay and lesbian communities enemies? Margaret Thatcher, the cops and the tabloids, right? And so they have a shared mutual enemy. And he’s like, that’s a good enough reason to go do fundraising for them, because we hate the same people. And then he goes to Wales, faces all this kind of discrimination, but of course, again, it gets a little squishy and liberal, where they kind of overcome the differences and so forth, and I was watching this and I was thinking like, okay, so this is actually fundamentally a movie about convincing people, right? It is a movie about evangelizing rather than sort of saying, we’re going to write off this whole town, and again, much of the outline is true, right? The fact is that the miners did strike in the gay and lesbian Pride Parade in 1985. All that is is true, all that is factually accurate. Again, not perfect, still lots of homophobes, obviously, the strike itself is largely seen as a failure, but there is some possible, again, if you don’t believe in the fundamental premise that we can use working class solidarity to better our lot and overcome prejudices to do so, then I don’t know what the fuck you believe in.
Daniel Denvir: Then we are fucked.
Adam: Yeah. Then we may as well all go eat a gun. I’m being serious here.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah. I agree.
Adam: Without being too pollyannaish or romantic, one of the things that annoys me about this idea is that like, again, there’s this fixed hulk-like white working class, and our job is to either write them off or tiptoe around them and not ever confront their prejudices, and I have to think there’s a third way here.
Daniel Denvir: Yeah. And that third way, there’s an amazing article by this young political scientist named — not like, super young, I mean, young in terms of like, just finished grad school and just got a job young — Jared Clemons called, I just pulled it up, “From ‘Freedom Now!’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’: Retrieving King and Randolph to Theorize Contemporary White Antiracism.” I did an interview with him on it, I think, a couple months back, and basically, what he does is goes to Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph, the early and mid 20th century Black labor and civil rights leader, and looks at their writing in speeches, and excavates a just brutal critique of liberal identity politics. Basically, King and Randolph are like elite white allies, you know, garbage, ephemeral, useless. What we need is materially grounded solidarity with white workers regardless of what ideas, good or bad, those white workers have in their head, because that is the only way we are going to build enough power to win freedom.
Nima: I think that all of these different ways of conceiving of the don’t wake the beast, tiptoeing around nature of this, you know, who is centered in this story in this framework, who are its victims, who is to blame? Yeah, it’s kind of everything here, right? Because it tells a story of kind of what we’re supposed to believe, which then opens up possibilities, but also forecloses a lot of things. And so I think that’s a great place to leave it. We, of course, have been speaking with Daniel Denvir, host of The Dig podcast on Jacobin Radio and author of All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics As We Know It, published in 2020 by Verso Books. Dan, thank you so much for joining us again on Citations Needed.
Daniel Denvir: Thank you, it’s really fun to be the guest on a podcast.
Adam: You know, the interesting thing about this is it’s sort of a variation on the like, ‘I was a liberal until I was mugged’ or ‘I saw like a crime committed’ or ‘I saw a homeless person’ and you saw this during a lot of like the never Trumper post was like if you need to win me over you need to do X, Y and Z it’s like there’s a sense of like —
Nima: I’m as liberal as you get but the reality is —
Adam: Yeah, but I saw, you know, there’s always homeless people so now I have no choice but to vote for a kick ass sheriff.
Adam: Yeah, again for the average voter I understand that that’s how normal people are but pundits, they always do this Bret Stevens and Tom Nichols would do this, if you, you know, if Democrats are going to win me over they need to do X, Y and Z. It’s like that viral Tiktok where the guy is like, ‘I don’t care,’ you know, like, it’s like well, okay, then go fuck yourself. I don’t, you know, it’s like your votes are going to be dispositive. It’s not like you’re really important to this coalition. It’s like, why are we always having to pander to you?
Adam: And your fucking boutique list of needs? It’s like, if you don’t like it tough shit. There’s the fucking door. As a form of mass politics, that doesn’t really work, then this is where I think the one of the major issues with this as a category error. It’s like, I don’t care what Bill Maher thinks. I mean, to the extent he influences people I care about, but I don’t really personally care what he thinks. But it matters if, and he ventriloquises this vague working class, which I do care what they mean, because some meaningful percentage of them can decide the fate of elections, unions, campaigns, right? You have to convince the quote-unquote “average people,” but I don’t think we need to spend a lot of time and effort convincing millionaire pundits, multimillionaire pundits speaking on their behalf, if that makes sense.
Nima: Well, because they’re doing this thing that’s like, you know, ‘Some people say,’ or ‘I’ve been hearing that,’ right? They kind of filter and launder their own bullshit through the working man.
Adam: Yeah, it’s like Chris Matthews, ‘In suburbs in Pennsylvania I’m hearing blah, blah.’ It’s like did you go door to door in the suburbs of Pennsylvania? Because when he was talking about why he basically was lobbying why Fetterman was going to lose and why he needed to drop out, of course, he ended up winning, and he’s like, oh, people in the suburbs are just talking about crime, crime non stop, and he outperformed Biden by three points, you know, he outperformed Clinton by quite a few points.
Nima: You also don’t have to necessarily appeal to dominant narratives that are based in oppression and racism. So, there’s that piece of it too where just because you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve been hearing this,’ or ‘The media constantly talks about crime so we have to respond to them,’ it’s like, no, no, those are built. Those are stories that are built up and maintained, and so part of the work of politics, and of organizing, right, is building solidarity around narratives that aren’t harmful like that.
Adam: Right. So people go, you know, because again, what Chris Matthews is responding to is he is responding to the fact that he was probably in Pennsylvania or in the general Philadelphia television market, and saw the non stop ads about Fetterman being, you know, I think one said ‘Fetterman letting killers kill again.’ While gangbangers spray Uzi fire over a crowd of civilians. He saw those, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I bet those lesser people are going to be convinced by this.’ And it’s like, yeah, some percent will, but evidently there was a pretty low ceiling because it ended up not really fucking mattering, he ended up getting outperformed the previous two presidential campaigns. So clearly, again, instead of saying, ‘I saw this ad, and it scared me,’ it’s, ‘Well I’m hearing from this mysterious cohort,’ it’s like, no, it’s just you. That’s the thing you want.
Nima: It’s you in your hotel room watching local news.
Adam: Right, and this kind of ventriloquising, as we’ve talked about the death, I know, we had a whole episode on it, but like you see it with this whole, libs need to chill out all the time. Because it’s like, just admit that you’re older, you’re more conservative, you’re white, again, don’t want to be the white guy is too cool for white people, but you’re white, clearly that will lead you to have a hair trigger about certain shit. Historically, that’s kind of one of our features, and you are projecting that on to other people, and it’s like, okay, fine, just be a cranky old white guy who thinks, you know, Oberlin sophomores with purple hair are annoying and have at it, but don’t like, don’t say, ‘Oh, well, you know it, you know, they have to cool off or I’m going to be forced to be a Nazi. It’s a hostage situation,’ you know, ‘If you don’t lower the capital gains tax, I’m going to shoot this dog.’ And it’s like, well, okay, thanks for your politics of solidarity and grace.
Nima: Well, right, because it truly affirms that someone’s ideology is not firm.
Adam: Which is again, for the average voter is fine, because our goal is not it’s not about moral hygiene.
Nima: But it’s the idea that like, ‘Oh, if you don’t do this thing, I’m so close. I’m so close to doing the thing that I’m telling you that I even know is harmful. I’m going to be forced to do terrible things and to reveal myself as a fascist, white, nativist, but all you have to do is not call racists racists, and then we can all realize that we’re in this together, but if you actually say things that offend my sensibilities, that I can then launder through other people’s assumed sensibilities that you’ll believe on behalf of them when I can’t really speak for myself, because I’m clearly in a different tax bracket than, yeah, you have to change your messaging to appeal to me.’
Adam: Because they don’t want to do the other thing, which again, I don’t want to valorize one election too much, but it’s like, yeah, clearly Fetterman, his poll numbers on crime were low because they ran nonstop psycho ads about it. But guess what? And so we talked about with Dan, he went and he found other things you could build solidarity coalition’s around like higher wages, like better Medicare or Medicaid, like being pro union, protecting unions in Pennsylvania, which are now making a slight bit of a comeback. And so that’s sort of the nature of politics. One current wants us to just write everyone off as loser racists, and let’s send in Jordan Klepper to go put this microphone in front of a bunch of dipshit MAGA slack-jawed yokels, that really low effort kind of political orientation. The second one would say, and they conveniently have the exact same take, which is that they’re all intractably and permanently fixed racists, and therefore we have to become racist or therefore we have to become transphobic or we have to speak in code about crime. But of course, the third way is like, look, you just need them to pull the fucking lever for you on election day or need them to fill out a union card or need them to, you know, you don’t need to be drinking buddies to them necessarily, that’s a political coalition’s work, so why don’t we try to find other things that appeal to people that transcend those differences?
Nima: Right, find the shared values without relinquishing any of your values, right?
Adam: You don’t need to relinquish your values, and we don’t need to say, ‘Oh, this policy is racist, but also it hurts white working class people here’s why.’ Again, this was a common left-wing, pillar of left-wing sort of propaganda up until about five years ago, this was sort of a normal way of approaching it rather than saying, like, ‘Oh, actually, let’s just give up and let’s have two versions of the same defeatist politics,’ one of which, of course, is primarily concerned with never ever, ever having to adopt any economic populism and the other one of which is just about the politics of being morally superior and having a greater moral hygiene and being better than sort of those people, and I think that’s not a binary that I think is very useful and it’s incredibly popular because it’s sort of the vast majority of takes we see pumped out about this topic.
Nima: Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we really are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thanks again for listening to Citations Needed. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, November 16, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.