Why the Alt-Center Is a Problem, Too

Photo-Illustration: Daily Intelligencer

Not everyone on the left side of the American political spectrum shares the same policy vision and electoral strategy.

Some believe Barack Obama’s tenure was a model of progressive governance (save, perhaps, for the appointment of James Comey). Others see the ex-president’s neglect of the foreclosure crisis, expansion of the drone war, and crackdown on whistle-blowers as profound betrayals of the left’s core values.

Some were thrilled to vote for the first female major-party nominee — and the historically progressive platform she campaigned on. Others morosely cast their ballots for a candidate whose past support for the Iraq War and welfare reform they couldn’t forgive — and whose progressive policy commitments they couldn’t believe. (And, a few maddeningly misguided devotees of the categorical imperative burned their ballots on the altar of Jill Stein).

Some believe progressives must defend the Affordable Care Act unequivocally; others, that they must push for a single-payer system. Some feel little ambivalence about the prospect of the “deep state” sabotaging Trump’s presidency; others fret about that precedent. Some believe Trump’s Russia scandal is an excellent issue for the 2018 midterms; others feel that bread-and-butter issues will be more resonant. Some believe the party should unite its coalition around issues of “identity”; others favor an emphasis on class. Some believe that the (enlightened) interests of capital and working people are not irreconcilable; others say they are. Some are repulsed by a strategic alliance with Wall Street; others, by one with dissatisfied Trump supporters.

The preceding litany is not meant to encompass every relevant position on the subjects it addresses. Nor is it intended to imply that there is a clean dichotomy on the left, such that everyone who favors single-payer healthcare was unenthusiastic about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. (Personally, I sympathize with “some” on some things, and with “others” on others.)

The point is, simply, that Donald Trump’s enemies disagree about many things, including how to handle their disagreements: Some believe that the Trump presidency requires the left to put aside its divisions — and focus its fire on the reactionary regime that threatens all it holds dear. Others claim that the choice before us is Sandersism or barbarism.

In my view, a strong case can be made for a popular front. But few are actually making it. Instead, some liberals who claim to favor unity are going out of their way to exaggerate the left’s divisions — and likening their socialist critics to neo-Nazis.

Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott is among them. The esteemed culture critic’s new column, “Why the Alt-Left Is a Problem, Too,” opens with the phrase, “Internet clickbait promotes mental tooth decay” — and proceeds to convincingly establish that its author has fallen prey to that very malady. Which is to say: Bad left-wing hot takes seem to have (temporarily, one hopes) rotted a great writer’s critical faculties.

Here is the core of Wolcott’s argument:

The alt-right receives the meatiest share of attention in the media, as it should. It’s powerful, vicious, steeped in neo-Nazi ideology, nativist white supremacy, men’s-rights misogyny, and Ayn Rand capitalist übermensch mythos, and it heralds a conquering hero in the White House in President Donald J. Trump, while the former executive chairman of the venereally right-wing Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, functions as despot whisperer, trickling Iago-ish poison into Trump’s receptive skull. The alt-left can’t match that for strength, malignancy, or tentacled reach, but its dude-bros and “purity progressives” exert a powerful reality-distortion field online and foster factionalism on the lib-left.

The columnist proceeds to distort the reality of the internecine disputes on the “lib-left,” and thus, to foster factionalism.

Wolcott defines the “alt-left” as left-wing writers and publications that share the alt-right’s “disillusionment with Obama’s presidency, loathing of Hillary Clinton, disgust with ‘identity politics,’ and … craving for a climactic reckoning that will clear the stage for a bold tomorrow.” He then provides a rundown of the alt-left’s core membership:

Its outlets include not only Jacobin but also the Intercept, one of whose co-founders is the inexhaustible Glenn Greenwald, lawyer, author, journalist, and crucial conduit for Edward Snowden’s stolen N.S.A. data to The Guardian; Web sites such as Truthdig, Consortiumnews, and Naked Capitalism; and anomalous apostates such as Mickey Kaus, a former contributor to liberal percolators of ideas and opinions such as Washington Monthly, the New Republic, Harper’s, and Slate, who migrated sideways and down to the right-wing Daily Caller, did a temporary hitch as a columnist for the Breitbart bughouse in 2016, and serves as a tweeting defender of Trump’s proposed wall. Other busy beavers on Twitter include Michael Tracey, Freddie deBoer, Mark Ames, Connor Kilpatrick (a Jacobin contributor), Jeremy Scahill (journalist and Intercept co-founder), and similar fun guys.

This list reveals two fundamental problems with Wolcott’s conception of the alt-left:

(1) It is capacious enough to include writers whose political views barely overlap.

(2) Almost no one whom he identifies as “alt-left” fits his definition of that term.

The notion that Mickey Kaus and Jacobin belong to the same faction of the “left” is an absurdity. The latter has published multiple columns describing open borders as a moral necessity. The former defected to the right years ago, after realizing that no policy was more central to enlightened progressivism than immigration restriction. What’s more, when Kaus was on the left, he was precisely the kind of moderate liberal that Jacobin contributors live to decry.

More fundamentally, few, if any, of the outlets and writers Wolcott cites identify as accelerationists — which is to say, almost none of them crave a “climactic reckoning that will clear the stage for a bold tomorrow.”

This is a major problem for his column, since he makes no argument for why it is both unjustified — and dangerous — to feel disillusioned by Obama’s presidency, or to loathe Hillary Clinton. Nor does he offer a rebuttal to the left-wing critique of (class-blind) identity politics.

Instead, he cites some of the dumbest things that Susan Sarandon and Jill Stein have said in their lives — and implies that these are the core beliefs of every leftist who has ever annoyed him on Twitter.

You can tell that Donald Trump’s victory serves the revolution is a marginal view on the American left by the fact that a couple quotes from the star of Dead Man Walking appear in virtually every column that argues the opposite.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t worthwhile critiques to be made of Jacobin, the Intercept, or their partisans on social media. Wolcott comes closer to landing a punch in noting some leftists’ odd use of the word “McCarthyism” to describe widespread alarm over the possibility that our last election was compromised by the intervention of a foreign, authoritarian regime. (Though Wolcott’s implicit dismissal of leftists’ concerns about the possibility of this alarm giving way to a new Cold War is odd, given Jeanne Shaheen’s comments one day earlier.)

But worthwhile critiques of the American far left would posit good-faith objections to its strongest arguments — not frame all leftists as the collective authors of Jill Stein’s worst tweet. Such critiques would also recognize the diversity of the far left, rather than imply it is occupied entirely by white men.

Most crucially, effective critiques of left-wing “factionalism” would not posit bizarre falsehoods — like Wolcott’s suggestion that Jacobin’s editors harbor a deep admiration for congresswomen Tulsi Gabbard — so as to link the far left to Trump, and paint a wider progressive divide than actually exists.

Unfortunately, Wolcott is far from the only liberal pushing critiques that do the very opposite. In his column, he cites the Tumblr blog Trumpian Leftism, which aggregates tweets from leftists who (allegedly) evince sympathy for Trumpism. Here is one entry.

An “alt-leftist” suggests that supporters of Keith Ellison do not dislike Cory Booker because they are racists, but rather, because they disagree with his positions on political issues.

The “alt-centrist” suggests this is the kind of argument a racist would make.

Without question, you can find plenty of bad-faith arguments and ad-hominem attacks on the far-left corners of your social-media feed. But when liberals respond in kind, they do nothing to clarify — or resolve — all that divides our side of the aisle.

Why the Alt-Center Is a Problem, Too