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The Left’s Culture War Rebranding

Technically, you could call it a victory. But what was expected to be a historic blue wave in 2020 turned out to be barely a ripple. Despite many polls predicting a blowout, Democrats only narrowly defeated a president widely believed to have mismanaged a pandemic that has killed over a quarter-million Americans and cratered the country’s economy. And Joe Biden’s underperformance in the presidential race gave way to disaster down-ballot, where Democrats failed to capture the Senate (which many analysts predicted), saw their House majority narrow significantly (instead of expand as expected), and failed miserably in their project of regaining majorities in state legislatures across the country.

If there was ever an opportune moment for left-wing activists to critique their party’s entire approach to politics, this would be it. Yet, if you listen to the group of politician-celebrities known as “the Squad”—Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, who have become the de facto spokespeople for the Democrats’ progressive, activist wing—the diagnosis is nothing short of bewildering. According to them, the lesson of 2020 is that the Democratic Party failed to address the forgotten and neglected issue of . . . racism?

In an interview published by Politico just after the election, Ocasio-Cortez declared that confronting racism was “an existential crisis for the Democratic Party” and lamented that “Democrats don’t want to talk about race.” She said in that same interview, “Anti-racism plays zero percent of a role in Democratic electoral strategy—zero, explicitly, implicitly. I’m not telling people to virtue signal, but there’s just like no plan for it.” Days earlier she had told the New York Times that the party had to “do a lot of anti-racist, deep canvassing in this country.” And in a tweet following the election, she observed that “white communities are getting more comfortable with overt racism” and that “real organizing & strategy is needed that disarms bigotry.”

The saving grace of an appraisal so far removed from reality is that it is in some ways revealing. Ocasio-Cortez’s comments are so discordant with the historical record of the Trump years, the events and tenor of the last election, and the surprising demographic inroads Trump achieved in 2020 that they suggest not merely a difference of perspective or interpretation but instead a profound structural incentive to deny reality. The Squad’s reactions to 2020 tell the story of a left-wing movement that has transformed itself from an anti-establishment, reformist effort within the Democratic Party to a performative opposition that now exists only to reinforce the party’s deepest pathologies.

Race to the Bottom

The liberal “Resistance” movement against Trump has always been primarily based on identity politics and the Trump presidency’s perceived threat to racial and ethnic groups that liberals consider marginalized. The Trump era saw the term “white supremacy,” once reserved for hate groups or individuals promoting racist ideologies, redefined in the cultural lexicon as a descriptor for the routine functioning of mainstream institutions, attitudes, and behaviors that have nothing to do with race. “Systemic” or “structural” racism became the catch-all explanation for any and all disparities and inequalities between racial and ethnic groups. The New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project attempted to redefine the founding of America itself around the arrival of the first African slaves on American shores. Once fringe racial theorists like White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo and “anti-racism” thought leader Ibram Kendi became household names in white, upper-middle-class suburbia.

Yet all of that was mere prologue to what would happen in the spring of 2020, when the death of George Floyd sparked the most significant national reckoning on race relations in America since the 1960s. The Democratic Party fully embraced the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM), wielding the politics of race as a battering ram against Trump through the summer and fall. Differences between the party’s establishment and activist wings suddenly seemed to disappear. Democratic politicians, operatives, and media figures expressed unquestioning solidarity with protestors and enthusiastically supported demands like the removal of statues and the renaming of public buildings, while excusing and explaining away the violent and destructive turn taken by the riots.

Kamala Harris praised BLM’s “brilliance” and “impact,” describing the protests as “essential” and calling BLM “the most significant agent for change within the criminal justice system.” Harris, along with Biden campaign staffers, went so far as to raise bail money for protestors in Minnesota. Representative Ayanna Pressley, a fellow Squad member, told an MSNBC interviewer during the period of active rioting in August that “there needs to be unrest in the streets as long as there’s unrest in our lives.” The party’s top leaders, Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, infamously led fellow congressional Democrats in taking a knee while wearing scarves made of traditional African Kente cloth. This culminated in a Democratic convention that was almost fully BLM-themed, complemented only by the occasional public service announcement to wear a face mask and Biden’s well-worn, sentimental appeals to restoring dignity, norms, and civility to the White House.

Despite the BLM theater and four years of Democrats warning about Trump’s “fascist” threat to minorities, however, Trump significantly improved upon his 2016 performance with nonwhite voters. Trump did not just make gains in one region or among one specific demographic group (like Cubans in Miami), he made significant gains among African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos. He also doubled his support with LGBT voters. Support for Trump shot up ten points in Ocasio-Cortez’s own district, which is almost 50 percent Latino and over 80 percent nonwhite. In fact, the only category in which Trump’s share of the vote decreased was white men.

Squad Goals

Unsurprisingly, House members from Democrats’ more conservative, business-friendly wing— who tend to be in closely divided suburban swing districts and suffered most of the party’s losses on election night—were quick to blame the Left for the Democrats’ poor performance. Many believed that controversial policies like defunding the police, which became the central demand of the summer protests and which Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad endorsed, had become an albatross around their necks.

But Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat and Squad member in good standing, knew how to fight back. In a contentious conference call among House members that was leaked to reporters, Tlaib said, “To be real, it sounds like you are saying stop pushing for what Black folks want.” In an interview with Politico several days after the call, Tlaib sounded a similar note: “We’re not going to be successful if we’re silencing districts like mine. Me not being able to speak on behalf of many of my neighbors right now, many of which are Black neighbors, means me being silenced. I can’t be silent.”

There’s just one small problem with Tlaib’s counteroffensive: black Americans overwhelmingly oppose defunding the police. According to a Gallup poll taken in July, 81 percent of black Americans oppose a reduction of police presence in their communities, with 20 percent of respondents indicating that they would actually like to see an increase. Defunding the police, it turns out, is the “Latinx” of public policies—an idea concocted and amplified by a largely white, status-signaling professional class and championed by supposed avatars of minority opinion like Tlaib, but with little actual support among the ordinary people upon whom it is foisted.

Indeed, this is not the first time that Tlaib’s signature brand of wokeness was revealed to be out of touch. In October 2019, during a tour of the Detroit Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center, Tlaib argued that, in order to prevent racial profiling, only black crime analysts should be permitted to use the center’s technology to identify black suspects. Citing anecdotal evidence and some research, Tlaib claimed that nonblack people too frequently conflate the identities of different black people to be trusted to use the technology accurately. Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who is black, flatly labeled Tlaib’s suggestion that analysts’ race could determine their ability to perform their job as being racist itself. Craig called the idea “insulting” and a “slap in the face to all the men and women in the crime center.”

These incidents, however, have never dampened Tlaib’s zeal for identity politics. Following the election, progressive groups and strategy firms aligned with the Squad launched a PR blitz in order to dispel the notion that the party’s association with ideas like defunding police had a detrimental effect on its candidates. But they did so by analyzing the performance of candidates relative to whether they officially supported those policies, a sleight of hand that should insult the intelligence of even the most casual political observer. A survey of attack ads this election cycle shows that Republicans had no compunction about tying vulnerable Democratic candidates in swing districts to the party’s association with defunding police, regardless of whether that candidate officially supported the policy (no Democrat in a competitive district actually did). That association was built not from official policy endorsements but from months of both explicit and tacit support for the policy (and the protest movement behind it) by the party’s most visible and vocal leaders, chief among them the Squad itself. In total, attack ads against Democrats that mentioned defunding police aired over 180,000 times in the 2020 election cycle.

A post-election analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that the impact of Republicans’ weaponization of the issue was particularly significant in Minnesota, where Democrats lost a U.S. House seat and six state senate races. Also in Minnesota, Squad member Ilhan Omar managed to underperform her party’s top of the ticket by more than any other congressional candidate, of either party, in this year’s elections.

Another frequent feature of Republican attacks was Ocasio-Cortez herself, who now has the distinction of appearing in more election ads against losing Democratic candidates than perhaps any freshman member of Congress in history. What Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and the rest of the Squad seem unwilling or unable to face is that, outside of their non-competitive (and often heavily gerrymandered) districts, and the rarified activist circles in which they’re venerated, their preferred culture war and identity politics issues are unpopular—and downright toxic in vast swaths of the country.

Controlled Opposition

But while it’s tempting to cast the Democrats’ centrist suburban caucus as victims of the Squad’s careless ideological extremism, it wouldn’t be quite accurate. After all, the Squad is simply the tip of the spear of a broader, party-wide turn toward a racialized, identity-obsessed culture war—one that’s been embraced by every corner of the party, nationally and locally, from leadership on down. Defunding the police was endorsed by some of the most traditional Democratic Party establishment institutions, including pro-choice groups Planned Parenthood and NARAL. No, the true casualty of the Squad’s brand of highly educated, professional-class cultural leftism is the political Left itself. While the Squad’s oppositional politics grew out of Bernie Sanders’s pathbreaking presidential run in 2016, the group’s success, and the cultural leftism it has elevated, represents not the triumph of Sanders’s broad-based populism but its ignominious defeat.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Sanders’s initial protest run—and his political career more broadly—stood for the exact opposite of what the Squad now advocates and represents. Sanders’s run was nothing if not an explicit effort to refocus the Democratic Party away from the elite-driven culture war and toward a more populist, class-based, pocketbook-driven politics. That’s why Sanders’s priority was combating wealth and income inequality in a way that would defuse the cultural issues that divide society along racial, ethnic, and other sectarian lines. That the main mode of attack against Sanders and his supporters was to relentlessly accuse them of racism, misogyny, and indifference to bigotry is further proof of the threat that Sanders’s run posed to this culture war consensus within the Democratic establishment.

But soon after the 2016 election, a political version of Stockholm Syndrome began to set in on the Sanders-aligned left. Under pressure to demonstrate an evolved and enlightened intersectionalism, it began to adopt the very identity politics it was ruthlessly beaten over the head with throughout the previous election season. The once populist, anti-establishment Sanders movement was thus assimilated into the broader anti-Trump Resistance, distinguishing itself only by its more outwardly radical aesthetic and street theatre. This reunion of radicals and establishment types was fully consummated this year by events like the linking of arms between suburban mothers and Antifa members in downtown Portland.

The new Antifa-BLM iteration of the activist Left proved to be far more in sync with the Democratic Party establishment than Sanders’s populist 2016 campaign. Not only was the party establishment fully consumed by anti-Trumpism, but it has also historically been much more comfortable with an interest-group-focused identity politics that poses little threat to its wealthy donor class and neoliberal economic orthodoxy.

Perhaps most revealing on this point was that every major institutional power center—from corporate America to Hollywood to academia—steadily incorporated the cultural Left’s maniacal “tolerance” and “diversity” program into their marketing and human resources departments. Over the summer, it was hard to find a Fortune 500 corporation that wasn’t using its Instagram account to affirm its support for BLM or trans WOC. Fittingly, the arrival of the “Great Awokening” in America’s boardrooms put even more power into the hands of the corporate managerial class to surveil and discipline its workers on the basis of those workers’ fluency in, and obedience to, an elaborate and ever-evolving “woke” etiquette. And it allowed the corporate class to acquire a patina of social justice activism without having to actually upset the status quo in any meaningful way.

This dynamic has similarly benefited the Squad, whose performative radicalism masks a lackluster record when it comes to actually challenging party leadership. As Politico documented earlier this year, Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad have largely backed away from even endorsing new primary challenges to their colleagues in Congress and have adopted a much more traditional, conciliatory relationship with the party’s old guard than their popular image suggests.

Squad members were largely silent, for example, on the high-stakes fight regarding remote proxy voting earlier this year that would have decentralized power away from the Speaker’s office and allowed much greater congressional involvement and oversight over the crafting of the cares Act legislation. In the absence of a traditional legislative process, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi crafted the bill in conjunction with the Trump White House and Senate Republicans without the threat of a Democratic counterproposal. The result was a monstrous giveaway to Wall Street and corporate America (which passed without a recorded vote, but which Ocasio-Cortez said she would have voted against) that set the stage for Congress’s austere, complacent attitude toward passing any additional relief legislation until after the election.

Most egregious is what happened this fall when Pelosi rebuffed a White House offer for a $2 trillion relief package in order to deny Trump a political accomplishment in the critical weeks before the election. At the time, few were willing to publicly call on Pelosi to set aside political calculation and deliver desperately needed relief. Among that small group were former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and California Congressman Ro Khanna, who raised the ire of the speaker by calling on her to “take the deal.” The Squad, however, was nowhere to be found, maintaining complete silence on the issue. During the week that it became clear that a preelection stimulus deal was slipping away—and that Americans who were skipping meals and facing evictions would wait months more for any relief—Squad members were tweeting out their splashy magazine covers and profiles in Vanity Fair and Teen Vogue, expounding on the “lived experience” they shared with vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, and posting inspiration-poster-like photos of themselves next to messages about “oppression.” And in the wake of congressional Democrats’ dismal electoral failure, the Squad made no effort whatsoever to organize a challenge to any positions of leadership within the caucus.

And that is precisely why complaints from establishment-aligned Democrats about the excesses of the Squad ring hollow. For one thing, the cultural Left presents a more easily controlled and vastly preferable form of “opposition” compared to a 2016 Sanders-style, class-focused populism. But perhaps even more significantly, the Squad’s controlled radicalism now acts as a petri dish for incubating the very politics of culture war that the Democratic Party establishment relies on to avoid a reckoning with its abandonment of economic-justice-oriented, working-class politics. While this symbiosis may result in the occasional collateral damage of a lost congressional race, it has proven to be a far more durable and useful coalitional arrangement for the party establishment than the existential threat once posed by Sanders.

Radical Chic

In fact, one of the most tragic victims of this evolution of the Left was Sanders’s own 2020 presidential campaign. In a sharp break from his highly successful 2016 populist campaign, the 2020 version adopted many of the intersectional Left orthodoxies that had been popularized and championed in the intervening years by his most influential surrogates, organizers, and supporters. Sanders’s laser-like focus in 2016 on wealth concentration, the threat of oligarchy, and his signature issue of Medicare for All became conspicuously diluted in 2020 by the addition of a grab bag of issues championed by the more educated, professional-class, social-justice-focused Left. Lightning-rod issues like abolishing ICE, the abstract Green New Deal, and the incessant denunciation of Trump as a “racist, sexist, and a homophobe” all became new staples of Sanders on the trail.

The problem with this strategy was never clearer than when Ocasio-Cortez, who by all accounts was Sanders’s most famous and influential surrogate, split with his campaign for trumpeting an endorsement it received from the mega-popular podcaster Joe Rogan. In any normal circumstances, that sort of mainstream, pop culture endorsement would be considered nothing short of heaven-sent for a political campaign. With one of the most influential media platforms in the country and a devoted following whose size rivals that of cable news networks, the impact of a Rogan endorsement is difficult to overstate. But within the rarefied confines of the intersectional Left, Rogan had long been designated as a “problematic” figure for hosting guests whose views on social and cultural issues have at one time or another run afoul of woke pieties. Faced with choosing between the first genuinely left-wing contender for the White House in generations—someone who had devoted his life to economic and social justice—and her status and celebrity among social justice activists, Ocasio-Cortez chose the latter. As a disciplinary action for the Rogan endorsement, Ocasio-Cortez pulled back from her surrogate role, declining to stump for Sanders or appear at any more events during the crucial early-state period of campaigning.

Another new element of Sanders’s second run was the overt brandishing of the “socialism” label. In 2016, Sanders had been careful to strategically downplay and contextualize his vision of “democratic socialism” because he understood that its historical and ideological baggage detracted from the fundamental popularity of socialist policies themselves. But again, Sanders was a victim of his early success. His 2016 run gave rise to a cottage industry of socialist political identity among a young, educated, energized class of Left activists and intellectuals throughout the country’s urban centers, flooding the membership rolls of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), subscription coffers of socialist media like Jacobin magazine, and podcasts like Chapo Trap House. The “socialist” moniker became a pseudo-transgressive, chic identifier for young progressives eager to distinguish themselves from their parents’ MSNBC liberalism. Ocasio-Cortez herself won an upset primary victory against Joe Crowley by openly running as a proud socialist and DSA member (as did Tlaib in Michigan). The secret to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was her ability to mobilize the predominantly white, college-educated, gentrifying parts of her district that came out in force in a low turnout primary where a total of 15,897 votes were enough to hand her the nomination. (Tlaib’s successful bid to fill the seat left open by the resignation of Representative John Conyers and represent a majority black district was also aided by unique circumstances: she had the fortune of running against a six-person field of candidates where the vote was heavily split, particularly among the black electorate).

The national narrative spawned by Ocasio-Cortez’s win and the symbolic success of the broader online socialism-industrial complex gave the impression of an ascendant new political force that Bernie could harness in his repeat presidential bid. This led Sanders to wield the label in a much more cavalier manner, which culminated in the decision to make a speech on the topic of democratic socialism the most important, anticipated, and heavily covered address of his entire campaign. Asked in an interview what distinguished him from his progressive rival Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was at the time surging in the polls, Sanders drew the distinction by remarking that while she had described herself as a “capitalist,” he most certainly was not.

Elevating the bogeyman of socialism, a line of attack that Trump openly telegraphed his intention to hammer, was a particularly baffling strategic decision in a primary where voters—particularly the older voters among whom Sanders’s support was weakest—were almost singularly focused on electability in the general election. It’s clear that the resurgent Left, encouraged by Sanders’s 2016 run, had mutated into an elite cultural-signaling project that then cross-pollinated back into his own 2020 campaign. Whereas Sanders had previously offered a mass politics with the potential to build a broad working-class coalition, his 2020 campaign became a narrow appeal to a base that was largely young, urban, and highly educated. The results of the 2020 primary laid this bare: a significant share of the working-class voters who had buoyed Sanders’s candidacy in 2016 deserted him for Joe Biden, and Sanders’s consistent radioactivity among older voters sealed his loss.

Something for Everyone

It is hard to pinpoint a single reason why the siren call of intersectionalism has proven so alluring for the Left, and specifically why the Squad now advocates it with such zeal, but a few explanations stand out. One is the deep-seated PTSD generated by the 2016 election, leading many on the left, who were attacked on identity politics grounds, to believe that adopting an even more radical version of identity politics would inoculate them from future humiliation. Even if true to some extent, however, this approach has also converted the Left from an actual opposition to a caucus of chiding disciplinarians and social justice lobbyists with no plan or even desire for acquiring actual power.

Another, related factor is the immense influence of social media. On Twitter especially, the medium beloved by the activist and media class, identity politics, call-out culture, and competitive victimization are the lingua franca with which personal brands and political cults are built. Social media now offers elected officials a path to fame and pop culture status that circumvents much of the old, hand-dirtying business of politics. For many, it seems, elected office itself has become merely a stepping stone to social media celebrity. Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Squad members have built massive platforms and followings that offer them influence, attention, and career prospects that were previously unheard of for junior members of Congress. If the priority of maintaining a social media influencer empire rivals, or even surpasses, the priority of being a successful legislator—and it’s not hard to see how it could be more immediately rewarding—politics itself can be subsumed by the warped incentives of the online attention economy. Indeed, the political figure whose style shares most in common with the Squad members is President Trump—both generate far more attention, publicity, and controversy for what they tweet than for what they actually do in office.

This may explain why the Squad members’ signature personas, both online and off, are not those of powerful public servants deserving of scrutiny and accountability, but instead those of social media victim-celebrities who deserve fierce loyalty from an adoring fan base. It may also explain why their social media postings tend to sound like irony-laced admonishments of officeholders from petitioning activists rather than statements from actual members of Congress. Squad members also adopt newly-coined social justice language, concepts, and slogans like highly attuned fashionistas, with one particularly jarring example being Ocasio-Cortez’s overnight conversion to Ibram Kendi’s church of “anti-racism” and her verbatim repetition during a radio interview this summer of his controversial declaration that if one isn’t specifically “anti-racist” in the Kendian mode, then one is a racist. There is no such thing, according to Kendi and Ocasio-Cortez, as simply being “not racist.”

But perhaps the simplest explanation is that a Squad-style Left is one that works for everyone. It works for a Democratic Party whose current project is to shed every last remnant of its blue-collar past and self-actualize as a party of upscale, urban professionals—a project that is accelerated with every Squad tweet. It works for the Squad, who can continue to acquire celebrity and influence by doing little other than offering a rebellious lifestyle brand to young, educated, but disaffected progressives who require something slightly more edgy than the uninspiring, septuagenarian-led party for which they must inevitably cast their votes. And it even works for realignment-enthused Republicans, who are eager to be on the receiving end of the Democratic Party’s steady discarding of working-class and non-college-educated voters. Where Sanders once offered those voters a program of class solidarity, economic relief, and a revolt against elite indifference, his successors mandate privilege-checking and “a lot of anti-racist, deep canvassing.” For a political system that is always open to new ways of preserving the status quo, the Squad has been a welcome development. And there is no reason to believe that they will wear out their welcome anytime soon, even if it costs Democrats a few House seats.

This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published December 22, 2020.

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