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Trump’s opponents are bitterly split. You can’t understand US politics today unless you understand the rift between liberals and leftwingers. By Pete Davis

It has been almost a year since the catastrophic election of Donald Trump. In his first year in office, the president has governed as cruelly and ineptly as his critics predicted. But while anti-Trump sentiment has never been more fierce and widespread, his political opponents are more divided than ever. And this faultline – which has parallels in Britain with divisions among the Labour party – could, if left unaddressed, compromise efforts to resist and defeat Trumpism.Bạn đang xem: Libtard là gì

Roughly speaking, these two sides could be characterised as the “populist wing” and the “establishment wing” of the Democratic party, but even this terminology is a point of controversy between the feuding sides. The party’s left wing, for example, wants to call the conflict the “left-liberal divide”. Loyalist Democrats want to play down the divide, calling for unity by insisting that Democrats are all members of “the left” (if those calling for unity are younger, millennial types), or that they are all “liberals” (if they are older, Clinton-era types). The right, meanwhile, does not understand the divide, continuing to believe in a monolithic “radical left” filled with “radical liberals”. This leads to the funny situation, as one commentator noted, in which members of both the left and the right reach for the same “I made it through college without becoming a liberal” T-shirt.

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The present conflict surfaced, as many intra-party feuds do, during a presidential primary. But unlike past internal conflicts, this one is sticking around. Centrist John Kerry supporters, for example, did not take potshots at insurgent Howard Dean supporters deep into 2005. This year, however, a full ecosystem – replete with duelling podcasts, magazines and candidates – has kept the divide alive. Skirmishes are popping up, like clockwork, every few weeks; from February’s bitterly contested election of a new Democratic National Committee chair, to leftist scepticism about potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris; from the launching of the Clinton-fawning website Verrit to the latest harangue from the liberal-bashing podcast Chapo Trap House.


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Supporters of Keith Ellison and Tom Perez, the two candidates for Democratic National Committee Chair. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/ReutersDiscussing a resolution to this conflict is difficult, because even calls for “resolution” can be interpreted as ideological statements. Wanting the Democratic party to survive and unify can be taken as an endorsement of the establishment, because the quickest path to intra-party peace is for the conflict’s leftwing instigators to get in line. Meanwhile, treating the intraparty divide as substantive – arguing that there is, in fact, a significant difference between, say, “Medicare for All” and “Obamacare” – can annoy liberals who believe that the so-called “divide” has been manufactured by a few disgruntled purists.

To resolve our intra-party conflict, we must first understand it. I believe the two sides’ concerns can be grouped into three divides: the first over party loyalty, the second over how to win elections, and the third over the gap between Democrats and Republicans. Each divide may not be relevant to every partisan in the conflict, but most partisans have divided over at least one of these three.

The divide over party loyalty

Liberals accuse leftwingers of not being loyal to the party in general elections. This began with the vilification of leftwing third-party voters, such as Ralph Nader voters in 2000 and Jill Stein voters in 2016. What made this past election special is that accusations of disloyalty were launched at a Democratic primary challenger. Hillary Clinton supporters feel that Bernie Sanders attacked Clinton excessively during the primary, stayed in the primary too long, and did not do enough to support her in the general election. Many loyal Democrats around the country have analogous feelings about leftwing rebels in the party generally: they think criticisms should be kept inside the family, and that it is important to be a “team player” in order to win elections and pass legislation. Some may call these loyal Democrats boring conformists, but from their perspective, it is party loyalists, not insurgent critics, who staff the party booth at the county fair and knock on doors every year to help get Democrats elected.

Leftists, on the other hand, believe this “disloyalty” accusation is bunk. First, they think establishment-wing leaders follow what the political blogger Jonathan Schwartz has called “the iron law of institutions”, which says that “the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself”. If party leaders were loyal to the party, leftwingers believe, then they would have learned from recent electoral losses and shaken the party up, even if it meant stepping aside themselves to make room for fresh faces and new ideas.

Second, insurgent leftwingers care less about catering to the dwindling group of grassroots party loyalists around the country, and more about activating the masses of non-voters and independents who are not yet loyal to any party. That is why they are less concerned about candidates, like Sanders, who are not technically Democrats. They see them not as selfish traitors, but rather as opportunities to build the party’s base.

Loyalty to the party generally is often bound up in loyalty to party leaders. The party’s liberal wing tends to get excited about party leaders’ personalities, and is more likely to share, say, Obama or Hillary memes, watch West Wing fantasies about party staffers and follow the path of rising stars. This loyalty extends to the wider network tied to the party, too, such as liberal-leaning news anchors and commentators, and party-aligned Hollywood stars such as Meryl Streep.


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Meryl Streep and Hillary Clinton in Washington DC in 2012. Photograph: Kevin Wolf/APLeftwingers think this level of loyalty is bizarre, especially when it comes to politicians they believe do not deserve it. Leftwingers are generally less likely to express loyalty to leaders, and more likely to pledge themselves to issue campaigns that bubble up from extra-party institutions, such as labour unions or racial justice and environmental groups. They respond to liberal attacks of “Why aren’t you knocking on doors in the general election?” with “Why aren’t you joining the Fight for $15?” (a national grassroots campaign for fairer wages led by fast-food workers). Leftwingers believe liberals cannot think for themselves on issues – that they wait to get the go-ahead from the party establishment before they offer any support. To leftwingers, the liberals’ shorter-term issues, such as the Russia investigation, are just distractions unless they are embedded in more fundamental issue campaigns.

Establishment Democrats often see leftwingers’ enthusiasm for disjointed issue campaigns over the party platform as further evidence that they do not understand “how real politics works”. As Slate writer Stephen Metcalf describes: “I see a social movement left that protests then goes home; and a Democratic party that stays on and does the hard, boring work.” Loyal Democrats see their friends forming phone-banks to urge members of Congress to oppose Republican attacks on Obamacare, and wonder why there are not more leftwingers pitching in. To loyal Democrats, either you call yourself a Democrat, be a team player and move issues forward as part of a concerted, directed party strategy … or you believe in the power of, to use one common liberal phrase, “Bernie’s magic elves”, who will mysteriously and effortlessly accomplish all the hidden work that it takes to make policy goals a reality.

This divide over party loyalty played out earlier this year in a skirmish over Jon Ossoff’s candidacy in a special congressional election in Georgia. Ossoff did not come out strongly for any issues that weren’t dictated by party leadership, but he was a loyal Democrat and would have been a reliable Democratic vote in Congress. His campaign was powered in large part by teams of suburban Atlanta moms – grassroots party loyalists who earnestly cared about resisting Trump. Liberals poured passion into the campaign while leftwingers criticised his bland message. When Ossoff lost, many loyalists viewed it as another example of the left not getting on board for a critical team project. Leftwingers, meanwhile, saw it as evidence that the party was still failing to understand the issues that really mattered to voters.

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The divide over strategy

The divide over what we are trying to win is coupled with a divide over how we win. The first part of this strategic divide is over what policies a losing party should adopt to win back power. Liberals’ go-to strategy is often thus: if you are losing, tack your policies to the centre to win; once you win back power, you can enact what you want.

Liberals believe that the left too often chooses ideological purity over victory. They think leftwingers are not serious about power: if populist leaders, they argue, ever had to actually lead the party – if they had to win elections and pass legislation – they too would be forced to be more pragmatic. Many establishment Democrats buy into the Republican talking point that the US is a centre-right country, and that Democrats need to adjust their strategy to that reality.

Leftwingers have the inverse policy strategy: if you are losing, you need a more differentiated, passionate policy vision to win. The writer Adam Johnson points to how Jeremy Corbyn succeeded with this strategy: “Corbyn’s campaign caught fire because he offered a clear moral vision of justice … they call it ‘ideology’ … But ideology is simply pragmatism over a longer timetable.”


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Bernie Sanders supporters in Philadelphia in July 2016. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty ImagesLeftwingers like Johnson believe liberals have been conned by the right into playing on their rhetorical turf. When Democrats couch their proposals in Republican rhetoric – such as when they refer to Russian interference as “communist infiltration” or pitch social welfare programs as “helping entrepreneurs” – they, in the left’s mind, commit the double error of appearing like inauthentic Diet Republicans and diluting the power of the Democrats’ own potentially inspiring ideals. At their most sceptical, leftwingers wonder whether Democratic leaders are tacking to the centre not simply as an electoral strategy, but because they do not believe in leftwing ideas in the first place. These leftwingers point to examples of times when Democrats had power and still did not advance their stated ideals in what leftwingers considered to be a sufficiently ambitious manner.

In short, the party’s liberal wing believes winning leads to idealism, whereas the party’s left wing believes idealism leads to winning.

The divide over the gap between Democrats and Republicans

Perhaps the root of these first two divides is a third divide: how much difference leftwingers and liberals believe there is between Democrats and Republicans.

Party loyalists believe the gap between the two parties is huge. The Republican party is so egregiously horrible, they argue, that it is imperative to remain loyal to our only hope of stopping them: the Democratic party. This viewpoint is captured in a recent Democratic Campaign Coordinating Committee sign reading “Democrats 2018: I mean, have you seen the other guys?” This belief explains why liberals tend to focus on the outrages of the “other guys” and downplay the left-liberal divide: given the constant threat of Republican power, any internal differences are minuscule. What’s more, the threat of Republican power, liberals point out, is especially acute to marginalised communities: whereas privileged idealists can afford to say “it has to get worse before it gets better,” immigrants at risk of deportation, black people at risk of police brutality and gay couples at risk of having their rights rolled back do not have the same luxury.

Leftwingers, on the other hand, see the gap between Democrats and Republicans as smaller. They like to point out examples of silent bipartisanship: the complicity of Democrats in the disastrous war in Iraq and the racist war on drugs, for example, or the Obama administration’s continuation of Bush-era, corporate-driven education reform. They criticise party loyalists for letting Democratic leaders steer them towards formerly Republican positions, such as when some Democratic loyalists began criticising administration leakers such as Chelsea Manning – a figure they would have lionised if she had committed her leaks while Bush was president.

Behind this divide is a failure to see eye-to-eye over certain larger narratives – narratives that leftwingers talk about more than liberals do. The left often situates both parties within broader conceptual frameworks, such as neoliberalism, corporate power and imperialism. To defeat these larger, nefarious societal structures and historical trends, leftwingers argue, we must identify them and prepare a plan to conquer them – a task more difficult than just defeating the Republicans at the ballot box.

Many liberals, meanwhile, either have not thought about, do not believe in, or do not prioritise addressing these forces. Some have even made fun of leftwingers for talking too much about “neoliberalism” – a phrase many centrists believe has no meaning, but that leftwingers insist is analytically useful. (Ironically, this is the same dynamic at play as when conservatives snarkily dismiss phrases such as “white supremacy” and “patriarchy” as being meaningless, despite the insistence by both leftists and liberals that you could fill an entire library with books explaining each phrase’s depth of meaning.)

From divides to tribes

These divisions may have started the left-liberal conflict, but it has been sustained by the fact that both sides are developing into integrated political tribes. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, political tribalism begins with shared intuitions: we first feel what is politically right, then later muster arguments to support our intuitions. When people who share some intuitions about politics find each other and discover they share other intuitions, they begin to form political communities to collaborate on mustering arguments for their bundles of shared intuitions. Out of these political communities emerge leaders and institutions. The tribal formation is complete when these communities establish a unified tribal narrative – complete with stories of the past, present and future; heroes and villains; and direction for what members should be doing.

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The loyalist wing of the party has had a tribe-building process, too – one likely accelerated by the party rebels’ rise. They started out with a different bundle of political intuitions: more trust for leaders like Obama and Clinton; more credit given to what Democrats were able to accomplish in the age of conservative ascendance; more inspiration taken from the racial and gender diversity of party leadership; and more appreciation for the progressive causes the party has begun to articulate over the past decades. A network of party-friendly institutions, journalists and leaders, old and new, has emerged to articulate and defend these liberal intuitions: media entities such as MSNBC and Slate; the DNC itself; the leaders and staffers of the Obama administration and Clinton campaigns; mainstream liberal thinktanks; and writers such as the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and Clara Jeffery, editor of Mother Jones magazine. A narrative has emerged to unify this wing as well: a story that casts the Democratic party as the entity that has overcome unprecedented Republican attacks to give voice to and fight for the interests of marginalised people in American politics.