Identity Politics. Retro-Socialism. Catastrophism. Growthphobia. Technopessimism.
After 40 years of decline, perhaps it’s time for the Left to try something new.
After all, capitalism has been underperforming as an engine of prosperity since the latter part of the previous century, in terms of both the rate and distribution of growth. But these many decades of rising inequality do not appear to have benefitted the western Left. Mass publics have not seen what the Left has on offer as a plausible cure for what ails their societies and they have voted accordingly.
It is especially striking that even the Great Financial Crisis of 2008–09 did not spur any realignment of voters toward the Left. In the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, with widespread suffering and plummeting incomes, forces of the Right benefited the most, particularly Right-populists. Of course, Right-populists are themselves vulnerable, as their significant losses in the 2018 election made clear. In 2020, they face the possible defeat of their standard-bearer, Donald Trump. But such outcomes reflect Trump’s own weaknesses more so than the Left’s ability to govern effectively or sustain a majority coalition over time. On those counts, the record for decades has been poor.
The Left has theories about this failure. One is that the true Left has the right formula but has not been able to make its case, thanks to the pernicious influence of neoliberal incrementalism and the craven politicians who espouse it within the Democratic Party. Another is that the globalized capitalist class has become more powerful and, in alliance with a cleverer and better-organized Right, has bent societies and politicians in its direction, despite the Left’s resistance. Still another is that, precisely because of this globalization, national Lefts cannot succeed on the level of the nation-state.
But there is a simpler theory: The public just isn’t interested in buying what the Left is selling. No matter how loudly the Left hawks its wares or how heroically it organizes, even as America grapples with a pandemic-driven health and economic crisis, it will not succeed. The Left’s internal diagnoses lead it to believe that in picking up the pieces from this global debacle it can finally gain the elusive support it needs. But while it is certainly possible—perhaps probable—that the Left will win some important elections in the near future, durable mass support for the Left and its goals will not emerge unless and until it radically revamps its offering, abandoning the unhealthy and unpopular obsessions that consume its attention and distract from actually solving problems. In particular, it must find the strength to overcome five deadly sins.
The Sin of Identity Politics
The first deadly sin is identity politics. This form of politics originated in the entirely just and necessary 1960s movements that sought to eliminate discrimination against and establish equal treatment and access for women, gays, and racial minorities. In evolving to the present day, the focus has mutated into an attempt to impose a worldview that emphasizes multiple, intersecting levels of oppression (“intersectionality”) based on group identification. In place of promoting universal rights and principles, advocates now police others on the Left to uncritically embrace this intersectional approach, insist on an arcane vocabulary for speaking about these purportedly oppressed groups, and prohibit discourse based on logic and evidence to evaluate the assertions of those who claim to speak on the groups’ behalf.
Is America really a “white supremacist” society? What does “structural racism” even mean and does it explain all the socioeconomic problems of nonwhites? Is anyone who raises questions about immigration levels a racist? Are personal pronouns necessary and something the Left should seek to popularize? Are transwomen exactly the same as biological women and are those who question such a claim simply “haters” who should be expunged from the Left coalition (as has been advocated in the UK)? This list could go on. What ties the questions together is that they are closely associated with practitioners of identity politics or adherents of the intersectional approach, who deem them not open to debate with the usual tools of logic and evidence. Politically derived answers are simply to be embraced by the Left in the interest of “social justice.”
The Left has paid a considerable price for its increasingly strong linkage to militant identity politics, which brands it as focused on, or at least distracted by, issues of little relevance to most voters’ lives. Worse, the focus has led many working-class voters to believe that, unless they subscribe to this emerging worldview and are willing to speak its language, they will be condemned as reactionary, intolerant, and racist by those who purport to represent their interests. To some extent these voters are right: They really are looked down upon by elements of the Left—typically younger, well-educated, and metropolitan—who embrace identity politics and the intersectional approach. This has contributed to the well-documented rupture in the Democratic Party’s coalition along lines of education and region.
What makes this sin so strange, counterproductive, and perhaps unforgivable, is that popular views on basic issues of tolerance and equality have become much more liberal over the years. The very things the Left was originally fighting for have become less controversial and more accepted—from gay marriage to women’s and racial equality to opposition to discrimination. The Left won.
Of course, that argument was prosecuted in the familiar language of fairness and civil rights; universal principles that have wide appeal and a deep foundation in the nation’s discourse. The same cannot be said for the boutique, academic-derived ideas and language favored by the identity-politics Left, or for the distinctly illiberal attitudes displayed toward dissent from those ideas or use of dis-approved language. Indeed, such emphasis and behavior is antithetical to the universal political and moral principles that have typically animated the Left and underpinned broad coalitions for social change. So long as the Left appears more interested in finding new enemies than in seeking new friends, it will fail to advance its many important priorities.
The Sin of Retro-Socialism
The second deadly sin of the Left is retro-socialism, which demands a complete remaking of the market system to heal the problems of contemporary capitalism. In this view, the ills of the current era are traceable to neoliberalism—faith in the market as the organizing mechanism for society—which compounds underlying problems with the capitalist system itself. The retro-socialists contend that the public is so sick of stagnating living standards, inequality, and periodic crises that it will (eventually) embrace their complete socialist overhaul of the system. This mistakes the public’s genuine discontent with current outcomes for a desire to abandon capitalism entirely. Voters are indeed dissatisfied with the current model of capitalism, but what they want is a different, better capitalism, not “socialism.”
The American Left is mostly careful to put the qualifier “democratic” in front of “socialism” to distinguish it from the authoritarian, command-economy socialists of yesteryear. And for many who use the term, their idea of socialism seems closer to a traditional social-democratic mixed economy than a radically different system that would somehow do away with profits and markets. So why call it socialism, a term that has all kinds of unpleasant associations and does imply a replacement of capitalism? Why not call it “people’s capitalism” or “democratic capitalism” or “the advanced mixed economy” or whatever?
By grasping nostalgically at revolutionary rhetoric, the Left sets the bar high for public embrace of what might otherwise be quite popular policy ideas, from single-payer health insurance to free college to a job guarantee. Generally, it is not a selling point for voters that your policies are a step along the road to socialism. Moreover, belief in the viability of replacing capitalism and the market encourages unrealistic thinking about policies that might work within a market system and misestimation of how quickly they might be adopted. This tendency has not gone unnoticed by voters, who are pragmatically interested in what is feasible and workable and have no ideological commitment to a different system. The socialist label and terminology undercut efforts to persuade voters that the Left’s agenda can work.
The Sin of Catastrophism
The third deadly sin is catastrophism. From the final crisis of capitalism to the inevitabilities of war and fascism, the Left often extends systemic critiques to claims that the Big Meltdown is just around the corner and can be prevented only if the Left comes to power and radically restructures the system. Among many current iterations of this catastrophism, the most prominent one by far concerns climate change.
There are exceptions of course, but the Left’s dominant strand of thinking sees climate change as a trend that will roast the planet and wipe out human civilization unless drastic action is taken very, very soon. For most on the Left, the apocalyptic pronouncements of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are more plausible than arguments that a warming climate is a problem susceptible to reform and better policy, addressable through adaptation and technological innovation. It is assumed that we are headed for, in David Wallace-Wells’ phrase, “the uninhabitable Earth.” When green activists claim we have five or, at most, ten years to solve the problem by achieving net-zero carbon emissions, most on the Left nod in agreement.
Such a rapid transition of global energy systems is a fairy tale, making the situation look hopeless instead of solvable. That is a real liability. Voters want to hear how problems can be solved—not told they’re doomed unless obviously impractical steps are taken. And it doesn’t help that the Left’s version of the steps that must be taken includes a raft of unrelated social programs that would be nice to have but don’t do anything about climate change (see, for instance, the Green New Deal proposed in Congress). Nor does it help that obviously necessary components of a clean energy program like nuclear power are ruled out because, well, people on the Left don’t like nuclear power.
None of this makes sense as either a political or policy approach. Climate change is, in fact, a solvable problem, but it will take some time (2050 is a reasonable target for net-zero global emissions) and massive technological innovation rather than a quixotic attempt to remake the global economy in just a few years. In the meantime, adaptations to unavoidable rises in temperature will be necessary, but these do not require turning the world upside down nor will they condemn billions of people to mass migration and death. The Left has plenty to fight for here, but the political support they need will not materialize so long as they continue their embrace of catastrophism.
The Sin of Growthphobia
The fourth deadly sin is growthphobia: discarding the goal of faster growth in the rush to address economic inequality. While reducing inequality is a laudable and essential goal, both through market reforms that generate more equal outcomes (“predistribution”) and tax-and-transfer programs (“redistribution”), it is counterproductive to lose sight of the need for faster growth as well. Growth, particularly productivity growth, is what drives rising living standards over time and the Left presumably stands for the fastest possible rise in living standards.
Faster growth also makes easier the achievement of the Left’s other goals. Hard economic times typically generate pessimism about the future and fear of change, not broad support for more democracy and social justice. In contrast, when times are good, when the economy is expanding and living standards are steadily rising for most of the population, people see better opportunities for themselves and are more inclined toward social generosity, tolerance, and collective advance.
Some resistance to growth may derive from an assumed growth-equity tradeoff, but evidence has strengthened over time that high inequality regimes (such as the one we live in today) have a negative effect on growth. We have gotten the worst of both worlds: sluggish growth and high inequality. A more equal society is fully compatible with a higher growth society—the proverbial “win-win.”
In truth, the Left’s lack of interest in growth reflects not only an understandable and laudable focus on unequal distribution, but also a general suspicion that the fruits of growth are poisoned. Growth encourages the accumulation of unneeded material possessions and a consumerist lifestyle rather than a truly good life, the thinking goes. And, worse, it is literally poisoning the Earth, driving the climate crisis that is hurtling the human race toward doom.
This has led many on the Left to argue that our capitalist economy based on growth must be replaced with a “degrowth” economy focused on simple, healthy communities; efficient resource use; and the elimination of wasteful consumerism. If that means no or negative economic growth, so be it.
Naomi Klein, author of the hugely influential 2015 book, This Change Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, advocates in a New Statesman essay for “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations.” She continues:
[W]e happen to have an economic system that fetishizes GDP growth above all else. . . . The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies but by reducing the amount of material stuff we produce and consume.
Current green icon, teenager Greta Thunberg, has joined the degrowth chorus.
Degrowth is probably the worst idea on the Left since communism. People want more, not less; they don’t object to growth, they object to where the benefits of growth have mostly gone. In short, they want abundance, not societally-mandated scarcity. And not only will people not accept artificial scarcity, but also the transition to a green economy is really only possible in a high-growth context, where the requisite (and expensive) technological innovation and infrastructure development—as, for example, in a Green New Deal—can be supported.
What is true for publics in advanced countries is doubly true for those living in the developing world. The radical drop in extreme poverty worldwide, from 44 percent in 1990 to under 10 percent today, has been widely noted. Less well-known, a Brookings Institution study has shown that the global middle class has doubled in size from about a quarter of the world’s population in 2000 to just over half today. These changes are attributable to economic growth, even if the benefits of economic growth in developing countries, as in developed countries, have been distributed unequally. It is highly implausible that these populations want less growth when they’ve already benefitted so much from the growth they have seen. What they really want is more and more equally-distributed growth and, ultimately, the lives of abundance they see many people around the world already living.
The Sin of Technopessimism
The Left’s final deadly sin is technopessimism. In the 21st century, the Left has become distinctly unenthusiastic about the potential of technology, tending to see it as a dark force to be contained rather than a force for good to be celebrated. This is very odd indeed. Almost everything people like about the modern world, including relatively high living standards, is traceable to technological advances and the knowledge embedded in those advances. From smart phones, flat-screen TVs, and the internet, to air and auto travel, to central heating and air conditioning, to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life, to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet, technology has dramatically transformed people’s lives for the better. It is difficult to argue that the average person today is not far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. As the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it, “the good old days were old but not good.”
Economists debate endlessly about the exact mechanisms connecting technology to growth, and about the social and institutional conditions that must be met for technology to maximize its effect on growth, but at the end of the day the growth we have seen—and the living standards the mass public enjoys—would simply not have been possible without the massive breakthroughs and continuous improvements we have seen in the technological realm.’
Given all this, one would expect the Left to embrace techno-optimism rather than technopessimism. If the goal is improving people’s lives, rapid technological advance is surely something to promote enthusiastically. But the Left has been lukewarm at best about the possibilities of new and better technologies, leaving techno-optimism to the libertarian-minded denizens of Silicon Valley. As British science journalist Leigh Phillips has observed:
Once upon a time, the Left . . . promised more innovation, faster progress, greater abundance. One of the reasons . . . that the historically fringe ideology of libertarianism is today so surprisingly popular in Silicon Valley and with tech-savvy young people more broadly . . . is that libertarianism is the only extant ideology that so substantially promises a significantly materially better future.
There are two main reasons for the Left’s ambiguous relationship to technology. One is directly related to the sin of growthphobia: The Left tends to underestimate the importance of economic growth, believing incorrectly that its social objectives are achievable with slow or even no growth. That leads naturally to an underestimation of the importance of technological change, since one of its chief attributes is promoting growth.
Second, and worse, many on the Left tend to regard technological change with dread rather than hope. They see technology as a force facilitating inequality rather than growth, destroying jobs rather than leading to skilled-job creation, turning consumers into corporate pawns rather than information-savvy citizens, and destroying the planet in the process. We are far, far away from the Left’s traditional attitude, which welcomed technological change as the handmaiden of abundance and increased leisure, or, for that matter, from the liberal optimism that permeated the culture of the 1950s and ‘60s with tantalizing visions of flying cars and obedient robots.
The Left’s technopessimism places yet another obstacle between its vital core message and ordinary voters. Voters know rapid technological change is a central and inevitable part of their world and they greatly enjoy many of the benefits that technological advances produce. Again, what they want is more and better, not a lot of tut-tutting about the dark side of progress and gloom about the future. To disparage technology in today’s world simply robs voters of hope. That is not a position the Left can afford to adopt.
Not coincidentally, these deadly sins all emerge from a highly educated, intellectually influential part of what economist Thomas Piketty has termed “the Brahmin Left.” These ideas are what these individuals believe, but not what most voters believe, hence the difficulties of forging a mass, durable Left.
The solution is obvious: advocate for what most voters want and believe; don’t advocate for what they don’t want or believe. The overwhelming majority of voters oppose discrimination and support universal values of equal opportunity and fair treatment for all. The overwhelming majority of voters believe inequality is too high and that the wealthy have too much power and fail to promote the common good. The overwhelming majority of voters believe a clean energy transition is necessary and want it pursued effectively. The overwhelming majority of voters oppose the way growth has been distributed but want higher living standards and technological progress.
A Left that promotes universal values, a better model of capitalism, practical problem-solving on climate change, and an economy that delivers abundance for all has a great opportunity. But first the Left has to decide if it wants to be popular or Brahmin, only one of which is likely to succeed in a democracy. That is a debate not currently happening.