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Pragmatism and the Actual (Not Online) Left

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So much of our discourse about the left today is twisted by our focus on a few online figures, Jacobin, the Chapo cokeheads, and a few other sources. This is really wrong. There is so much vitriol from liberals toward the left because of a few jerks (and of course the feeling from those jerks to liberals is more than shared). But in reality, the real left, the people actually doing the work to organize and make the world a better place, is dominated by people with deep understandings of politics and the kind of actions needed to make change. That includes compromise and pragmatism. Kate Aronoff has a good piece on this, focusing on climate activists going all-in on supporting Jon Ossoff, not exactly a revolutionary figure.

Jon Osoff, the Democratic challenger running against Republican incumbent Senator David Perdue, has repeatedly stated his opposition to the Green New Deal. Despite that, thousands of young Sunrise volunteers are phone-banking in the hopes of sending him to Washington.

This isn’t because Ossoff is secretly a “radical liberal.” Rather, it’s because Democrats on the party’s left wing are more practical than the party has ever given them credit for. They understand the stakes of these races for dealing with the climate and a whole host of other pressing crises. Democratic control of the Senate could dramatically shift the bounds of possible policy in the next few years, while Republican control could serve as a hard brake on bills to meaningfully curb emissions.

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The Democrats’ left flank, including Justice Democrats and Sunrise, are trying to learn from past mistakes. Republicans killed cap-and-trade partly through successful right-wing primary challenges. Inglis—with his broadly right-wing voting record—was subject to a successful climate litmus test from his party’s insurgent wing, which both defeated Waxman-Markey and helped Republicans take back the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the White House in 2016. Militant primaries have long been a reliable tactic for Republicans, even when they’ve failed in the short run. Barry Goldwater’s insurgent 1964 presidential bid set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s bitter and narrowly defeated 1976 primary challenge to incumbent Gerald Ford, who lost to Jimmy Carter after Reagan essentially refused to campaign for him; the “Reagan Revolution” was more important. The Reagan administration would proceed to reshape the party in his and Goldwater’s image once it took office four years later, laying the groundwork for Donald Trump. In theory, a likeminded approach could help climate activists push the Democratic Party to drop prejudices against big spending and activist government that have kept it from embracing climate policy at the scale needed to address the crisis. On the right and the left, primaries are a means to an end: transforming the party so that it will deliver the policy outcomes you want.

I recognize that this is an online site and not an organizing site for leftists or liberals. But it would behoove all of us to spend less time worrying about a few online leftist idiots and instead focus on what actual leftists are doing, which is working their butts off to make the world a better place, including engaging in the transactional compromising that defines politics.

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