In recent weeks, a controversy has popped up pitting the centrist #Resistance and progressive wings of the Democratic party against each other. This iteration of what has become a common battle regards a rising star of the establishment Democratic party—Kamala Harris, junior senator from California. Although the recent debate on Harris is relatively new, sparked by an article from The Week by Ryan Cooper titled “Why Leftists Don’t Trust Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Deval Patrick,” it’s only the newest incarnation of a toxic dynamic that has been in full swing since 2016, where the two sides do battle over whether leftist critique of certain politicians is proof that the critics are racist, misogynist, or both. No matter how specific and policy-oriented the left’s critiques are, a certain class of liberals will never let the debate be about policy. This piece is an attempt to explain their tactics, and outline a strategy for overcoming them.
Typically, there are five steps to the centrist smear.
First, the leftists making the critiques are depicted by liberals as being almost exclusively white, male, and (often) privileged. The most popular method for carrying this out is the coining and weaponizing of the term “Bernie Bros.” Sometimes (white) female Bernie supporters are begrudgingly acknowledged, only to be dismissed as traitors suffering from “internalized misogyny,” or as flighty young singles supporting Sanders because that’s where the boys are—as Gloria Steinem, among others, claimed. Leftists of color, however, are rarely acknowledged even begrudgingly, and are often ignored outright in an act of erasure.
The second tactic of centrist liberals is to portray these supposedly exclusively white, male leftists as being solely motivated by misogyny and racism in their criticisms of women and minority politicians. They tend to do this by ignoring, minimizing or outright dismissing any policy criticisms leveled against these politicians, and by claiming that these female and or minority politicians are being held to a higher standard of purity testing than their white, male counterparts.
Step three from the centrist playbook is to maintain that identity politics are being thrown under the bus in favor of class-only politics—regardless of the substantive policy and character critiques put forth. Many #Resistance-style liberals have a very narrow definition of good identity politics that only allows for superficial diversity in the form of representation optics. For example, a board of directors of a corporation may exploit its black workers and run abusive third-world sweatshops and practice environmental racism, but as long as that board has a proportionate number of women and minorities, the liberal idea of identity politics is usually satisfied. Therefore, even if the critique against a minority or woman candidate is for an action that disproportionately targeted black people—expanding the prison-industrial complex by locking up black men at an increased rate, for example—centrists perpetually claim that the greater crime to the marginalized group is the fact that anyone dares to criticize a politician from that group. Even when that minority candidate is being criticized for a policy that hurts minorities and women, the lie must be maintained—criticism of that politician is criticism of the group, and identity politics in all its forms.
Step four is simple tone policing—divert the topic to “civility of the discourse,” shifting the focus to how the critic delivered her criticism, rather than the substantive merit of said criticism. This leads directly to smarm and virtue signaling—a pattern that repeatedly occurred in 2016 with Hillary Clinton, and is happening again with Kamala Harris. In both cases, liberals press the idea that criticisms only ever come from privileged white men, are too rude and abusive to ever be constructive, and only ever stem from racism and sexism—usually in the form of a total dismissal of all identity politics and a contempt for the oppressed identities they’re meant to protect. Critics of these politicians are never acknowledged as having legitimate concerns on policy and character.
The fifth and final step for the neoliberals is to make the political debate a matter of charismatic personalities, or “names.” This is why we see so many pieces lamenting that Kamala Harris has a “Bernieland problem,” or is struggling with “Bernie Sanders supporters,” despite the fact that neither Bernie Sanders or anyone in his inner circle are actually behind any of the Harris public criticisms, and most of these leftists haven’t brought up Sanders at all in their critiques. (Some centrists, such as Laurence Tribe, have gone so far as to accuse Sanders of masterminding the attacks, in the absence of all evidence.) These pieces often refuse to call the critics “leftists” or “progressives,” because that would give a clearer idea of policy beliefs and ideals.
On Aug. 8, when The Week published the aforementioned Ryan Cooper article, and every day since, all of these dynamics have been in the media. Cooper responded to accusations that the left is motivated by racism and misogyny in its distrust of Harris by citing her history as a prosecutor, her defense of questionable Wall Street fat cats like Bain Capital, and her closeness to the donor class. However, although a few responses did try to sincerely engage Cooper’s arguments, most simply evaded them altogether in favor of doubling down on accusations of racism, sexism, and the false claim that these critics refused to hold white politicians to the same standards.
My personal belief is that liberals always want to pivot away from substantive policy to diversity, double standards, civility, privilege and personalities because they’re actually afraid of defending their heroes on a policy level—though not always for the same reasons. Some of these liberals won’t defend the problematic policies and connections of a Harris, Booker, or Patrick because they don’t find them problematic. In fact, they outright support them, and don’t want to openly say so. Others can’t defend the problematic policies and connections of a Harris, Booker, or Patrick because they don’t actually know enough about the policies and connections of their faves to defend them on that level—even if they were inclined to try. They only engage with them on the level of fans and celebrities.
And it’s precisely because they can’t argue politics on a policy level that they always want to get leftists to discuss the criteria that matter to them…bourgeois feminism, superficial diversity, civility, and incrementalism. Since they can only critique on those standards, they try to force others into defending on the same standards, and shift the entire discourse. When you know you can’t win the debate on policy grounds, there are some definite advantages to using this alternate strategy instead.
First, by constantly returning the focus to identity politics, the hope is to get leftists to respond on the same grounds, which subtly reinforces their premise that these are the things politics should be about. Therefore, even if you as a leftist are responding just to say “no, we’re not white racists silencing people of color and women” and “no, we’re not uncivil,” you’re validating their premise that those are the most important issues at stake simply by defending yourself. Suddenly, you’re on trial, and the politicians in question—along with their policies and political connections—are secondary. But if a leftist refuses to answer at all, she will appear to be tacitly admitting to racism, misogyny, and other forms of toxicity. It’s the classic loaded question gambit gambit: “Senator, when did you stop beating your wife?”
That’s why the best response is to always pivot back to policy, even when choosing to answering the identity politics accusations. If, as a leftist, you choose to defend the left’s track record on race, be sure to include policies you support that help oppressed identities, and contrast them with centrist policies that hurt those same people. Whenever liberals get roped into policy discussions, they usually end up defending fallacious arguments that are easy to pick apart. Often, liberals will end up in ludicrous positions—badmouthing single payer, defending Hillary’s Arkansas slave labor, defending the Clinton crime bill, etc.
That’s why Cooper’s article was so effective and triggered so much defensiveness: it moved them out of their comfort zone and onto their opponent’s field of battle. Pivoting back to superficial identity politics, civilities, and litigating popular personalities is their attempt to regain home court advantage. In response to claims that the left dislikes Harris because she’s black and female, Cooper responded with pure policy, rather than just saying, “hey, we do like women and people of color, and here are examples of some who rock with us”—which is exactly the response they want. If you go that route, they’ll ignore you anyway, and will view it as validation of the idea that politics is just a head count of tokens.
Even if you do respond with policy, note that a liberal’s only defense is to revert to superficial identity politics, which is why you have to remain vigilant and stick to policy no matter how often they force the pivot. It’s not that identity politics and feminism don’t matter; it’s just that they’re using these topics as shields, and no matter how much you accept and respond to their framing, they’ll ignore the answer anyway. Furthermore, the superficial way they frame feminism and identity politics isn’t particularly helpful to women and minorities anyway. It’s optics and incrementalism—utterly bourgeois in its concerns and solutions.
I feel liberals ignore policy concerns that people like Ryan Cooper, Briahna Joy Gray, and Zoe Samudzi bring up because either they fully support said crappy policies and know saying so looks bad, or because they aren’t engaged on policies at all, couldn’t defend them intellectually even if they wanted to, and may not even know what they are.
Oh, and don’t forget personalities. They also want to keep topic on personalities (Hillary, Kamala, Bernie, certain leftist podcasters, pundits, and writers) and not on systems and the needs of voters. They get hung up on people, and not ideas. That way they can dwell on things like Bernie Sanders the person, his wife’s legal case, and the cost of his house, and not on socialism and its growing appeal with the populace, especially young people. If this sounds like a Republican smear tactic, that’s no accident—a continued focus on policy is kryptonite to liberals, whose only recourse is to act, and sound, just like conservatives.
T. Beaulieu is the host of the Champagne Sharks podcast. You can also find him on Twitter @rickyrawls.