No BackSpace: How the Left Can Stop Defeating Itself in 5 Easy Steps

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Inauguration Day , 1997. Bill Clinton's legacy is a matter of dispute among Democrats. Did he save it or set it back by moving to the center?

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Inauguration Day , 1997. Bill Clinton’s legacy is a matter of dispute among Democrats. Did he save it or set it back by moving to the center?

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This is the third part of an extended excerpt from Joel Berg’s forthcoming “America, We Need to Talk: a Self Help Book for the Nation,” to be published by Seven Stories Press in early 2017. To read part one, click here. Part two is here.
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The Left has a long history of spending more time and energy eating its own than defeating the Right. (1)

On many of the issues that mattered most, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders held positions and records that were very similar.(2) In any case, the differences between Bernie and Hillary were absolutely dwarfed by their shared divergence with the ultra-nutty G.O.P. contenders in 2016. But that didn’t prevent Clinton and Sanders and their supporters from ripping each other apart, sometimes viciously, and often unfairly.

Michael Moore implied that the demise of the Michigan auto industry was because of the NAFTA trade agreement (and thus the Clintons) but his movie, Roger and Me, which detailed how General Motors screwed his Michigan hometown of Flint, came out years before Bill Clinton was elected president. And according to Bureau of Labor statistics, there were more auto manufacturing jobs in Michigan at the end of Bill Clinton’s administration than there were at the beginning. (3)

Too many Sanders online supporters—so called “Bernie bros”—made vile, widely misogynist attacks on Clinton. I saw one claim that a reason to vote against Hillary Clinton was the death of Vince Foster, echoing the extremist, fringe-right rumor that Clinton had one of her best friends killed. Despicable. When the self-professed Left gloms onto fanatic conservative talking points, you know they are themselves unhinged.

No Backspace is City Limits' blog featuring a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics. Click here to read more..

No Backspace is City Limits’ blog featuring a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics. Click here to read more.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign and supporters were hardly blameless. If Sanders so much as hiccupped near her, he was falsely blamed for being sexist. There is no doubt that misogyny in our country is still prevalent—and that she was the frequent victim of large and small slights due to her gender—but not every criticism of Clinton’s record should have been attributed to out-of-control sexism by Sanders supporters, as some of her defenders charged. The Sanders versus Clinton fight pitted wives against husbands and friends against friends – when the party should have been particularly united in gearing up against the outcome of the Republican primary contest, full of the least-qualified and downright craziest challengers in the history of American presidential elections.

Progressives can’t always seem to tell the difference between their committed enemies and their true friends. In the mid-1990s, when Al Gore was vice president, the Clinton administration advanced the vast majority of the environmental movement’s agenda. In contrast, the congressional Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, came out against every environmental priority. Yet at the time, I received a fundraising call at home from Greenpeace, which slammed the Clinton administration on their management of national forests, conveniently omitting from their argument that the objectionable forest policies were mostly forced on the US Forest Service by congressional Republicans. That’s so typical of the Left, going after their friends for disagreeing on a few small things, rather than battling the other side for opposing them on everything (4).

Just as many conservatives heap especially heavy scorn on those Republicans not far-right-wing enough—calling them RHINOS (Republicans in Name Only)—many on the Left are obsessed with crusading against center/left-leaning members of their party who have called themselves, “New Democrats.” Liberals claim that New Democrats sold out progressive causes when Bill Clinton was president. They heap extra-special distaste on the now-defunct centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), the organizations which pioneered many of the New Democrat ideas, and for which I worked from 1989 through 1991. (5) In 2016, New Democrat–bashing became particularly fashionable as a way for the Left to slam Hillary’s campaign. In Salon, writer Walter Bragman wrote:

In the ’90s the Democrats figured out the prevailing narrative and adapted. Ultimately, they accepted the GOP rhetoric and economic platform–that’s what the New Democrats were; Reagan Democrats. While this move got Bill Clinton elected president (along with the fact that George H.W. Bush couldn’t fix the Reagan economy), since then, we have had a hard time recovering. Getting anything passed has not been easy since we willingly tied our legs together… But now we face a different situation than we have in 50 years. The country is moving left out of desperation for change after years of Republican dominance. The GOP is unable to tap into this shift, like the Democrats of yesterday. Now, we must show courage and not settle for anything less than a New Deal-style overhaul. (6)

In What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank blamed the demise of Democratic Party fortunes among the white working class on the DLC, which he claimed “was pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals” and “to make endless concessions of economic issues, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, and the rest of it.” (7)

Most of these those characterizations of the New Democrat movement were off the mark. While the DLC, PPI, and their acolytes were far from perfect (8) their main goal was to win back working-class votes, and, with Bill Clinton’s leadership, they mostly succeeded. Far from harming the party at the ballot box, the party’s mainstream orientation enabled the Clinton/Gore ticket to nearly win even Kansas in 1992, the closest showing by a Democrat in that state since 1964. (9) Clinton won two landslide terms. If you claim that the country would have been just the same had George Herbert Walker Bush won a second term in 1992, or had Bob Dole won the presidency in 1996, I say you are off your rocker. (10)

Perhaps the greatest failure of the New Democrat movement and Bill Clinton’s affiliation with it were that they gave the country the false impression that they embraced Center/Left ideas for the mercenary reason that they wanted to win, when they also did so because they believed these types of policies were the best for the country. While I’ll be the first to admit that welfare reform certainly had significant flaws (especially in the form pushed through by the Gingrich Republicans and that was eventually signed into law), the bottom line was that focusing on work as the centerpiece of social policy was a continuation—not a deviation—from the legacy of FDR, who made work a focal point of all his relief efforts, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. The New Democrats proposed many policies that were truly progressive, including Individual Development Accounts to help low-income families save money, higher taxes on the rich, expanded tax credits for the working poor, a plan to enable all Americans to pay for college through civilian national service, and empowerment zones and enterprise communities to target increased aid to some of the nation’s lowest-income rural communities and urban neighborhoods.

Far from the caricature that they were merely trying to turn the Democratic Party to the Right, they were trying to modernize it, thereby—in their minds—saving it and its core progressive values. The proof was in the pudding: under President Bill Clinton, 2.8 million people who’d been previously unemployed entered the labor force, median worker wages rose, and poverty dropped, with black and Hispanic poverty sinking to historic lows. Yet some on the Left now, incomprehensibly, seem to team up with the Right in their claims that the 1990s were a nightmare for America. Thomas Frank even called the Bill Clinton presidency “odious.”

In 2014 Bill Curry, former White House advisor to President Bill Clinton and two-time losing candidate for governor of Connecticut, urged progressives to abandon the Democratic Party in order to fix it:

Some say the Democratic Party is beyond saving. Others say it’s our last hope. I see progressives taking leave of Democrats not as abandonment but more like tough love. In the end it may be the only thing that can save Democrats or for that matter progressives, whose reputation has been tarnished by the party that betrayed them. (11)

Throughout this book, I have excoriated Democrats for their spinelessness. But any implication that what the party really needs is a yet another spell of Republican-run governance is absurd.

But whether the attacks against the New Democrats are warranted, or whether my defense of the movement is warranted, I think the bigger point is that progressives need to move beyond endlessly fighting past battles and holding ideological witch trials.

In 1934, (true) anarchist Emma Goldman noted how the Soviet Union’s quest for ideological purity crushed progressive causes:

All political movements are at each other’s throats—more bitter, vindictive, and downright savage against each other than they are against their common enemies. The most unpardonable offender in this respect is the so-called Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Not only is it keeping up a process of extermination of all political opponents in and outside its territory, but it is also engaged in wholesale character assassination. Men and women with a heroic record of revolutionary activity, persons who have consecrated themselves to their ideals, who went through untold sufferings under the Romanovs, are maligned, misrepresented, dubbed with vile names, and hounded without mercy. (12)

Any political movement that seeks one hundred percent purity will, in the long run, lose or collapse. Human beings aren’t one hundred percent pure or even 99. That’s why my top ideology is effectiveness. Getting stuff done that actually helps people is always preferable to being so hamstrung by ideological purity that you lose every fight. (13) I once got a fortune cookie that said. “Thought that leads to no action is not thought – it is dreaming.” Exactly.

Friendship-Winning in the 21st Century

While most American liberals are not nearly as elitist as conservatives make them out to be, many of them, especially the more privileged white ones, are uncomfortably out of touch with the needs of their working-class and racially-diverse neighbors.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, written by Dale Carnegie in 1936, was one of Americas’ earliest popular self-help books, selling 16 million copies worldwide by 2016, marginally more than All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?or; Soul on White Rice: The Rachel Dolezal Story.(14) There are some rules in the Carnegie book that the Left should consider following:

Become genuinely interested in other people. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

Progressives really need to get out more, spend quality time in low-income and diverse neighborhoods, and learn from the people who actually live in those communities what they truly need and want.

Smile.

Too many of my fellow Lefties are humorless scolds. (As opposed to me, a humorous scold.) Liberals seem to constantly barrage the social media world and elsewhere with images of people angrily marching with clenched fists. Progressive activists need look less angry, and be less angry, myself included.

Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.

You may want to talk about some amorphous attack by the one percent, but if the people you’re trying to convince really want to hear how they’ll get jobs or raises, then you’d really better talk about that.

If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

Lately, liberals have been adopting conservatives’ bad habit of believing wacky conspiracy theories that just aren’t true. You lefties shouldn’t do that: stop it. Stop it now. If facts prove your pre-conceived notions wrong, just admit that. It will get you votes, I promise.

Appeal to the nobler motives.

Movements, and especially progressive ones, need to provide more than just an opportunity for like-minded people to vent about what pisses them off. By that count, both Occupiers and Bernie-istas failed. If we want to not only maintain the moral high ground, but also actually win policy fights and govern the nation, progressives need to transcend the politics of resentment.

We must persuade based on voters’ self-interest, explaining how we will improve their daily living conditions. In addition, we should appeal to the nation’s fundamental altruism, explaining how all of us will benefit from a more inclusive America. Simply scapegoating the one percent just won’t cut it.

If we truly want to win over the country, we need an inclusive message that says: “We are the 100 percent.”

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Joel Berg is CEO of Hunger Free America.



Notes

1) Eating your own is not an anti-hunger strategy I endorse.

2) The two biggest substantive differences is that Hillary voted to authorize the Iraq War but Sanders voted against it and also that Hillary was generally far more supportive of gun control than was Sanders.

3) Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Spotlight on Statistics: Automobiles,” October 2011, (accessed March 5, 2016).

4) Now, I am fully aware that some might laugh at me—of all people—complaining that others are too verbally combative. But I’d like to think that my verbal jousting is focused on big picture issues of life and death, not petty squabbles. But I guess that’s what petty, combative people always think.

5) The Progressive Policy Institute is still going strong and I still do some work with them.

6) Walker Bragman, “Hillary Clinton is just Republican lite: Sorry, boomers, but this millennial is still only voting Bernie Sanders,” Salon, December 22, 2015, (accessed March 5, 2016).

7) Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? 2004, Henry Holt and Company, New York,

8) The organization’s staffs weren’t as diverse as they should have been and were a bit too aligned with big corporate interests for my taste (although I happily accepted my salary despite who paid for it), and sometimes they chose confrontation over cooperation with other Democrats who could have been allies, but they were still far more progressive than critics on the Left have charged.

9) In 1992, I was the Clinton/Gore statewide campaign press secretary in Kansas. We lost the state by only four percentage points that year, compared to losing neighboring Nebraska by 11 and Oklahoma by 17. Whatever was—and is—the matter with Kansas, I still feel love for its BBQ and its people. Well, many of them.

10) I am no doubt biased because I worked for Bill Clinton and the New Democrat movement, but the facts are the facts.

11) Bill Curry, “Let’s abandon the Democrats: Stop blaming Fox News and stop hoping Elizabeth Warren will save us,” Salon, December 23, 2014, (accessed March 5, 2016).

12) Emma Goldman, “The Tragedy of the Political Exiles,” The Nation, October 10, 1934,  (accessed March 11, 2016).

13) The only thing that drives me more nuts than purists who are upset when they lose fights, are purists who believe their losses further prove the righteousness of their ideological purity, a stance that is incredibly self-indulgent.

14) All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? is a cult masterpiece (or maybe just required reading in compounds led by cult leaders). Soul on White Rice: the Rachel Dolezal Story doesn’t exist.

3 thoughts on “No BackSpace: How the Left Can Stop Defeating Itself in 5 Easy Steps

  1. “Bernie Bros” is a myth. I’ve voted Democrat for the last 25 years. I’m a woman. Clinton is dangerous. She has a history of making terrible decisions and mistakes. Thankfully, President Obama did not listen to her regarding Libya. It has nothing to do with her gender. I was called a sexist by a Clinton supporter when I said I would be voting for Jill Stein! I’ve been on numberous political blogs/articles online and have never once seen a Sanders supporter criticize her because of her gender. She has a history of flip flopping on issues once lobbiest put money in her pocket. If she were a man I would feel the same way.

    https://theintercept.com/2016/01/31/the-bernie-bros-narrative-a-cheap-false-campaign-tactic-masquerading-as-journalism-and-social-activism/

  2. So, we can “win” if we all become neoliberals. Michael Moore is a rubbish argument. How about aircraft manufacturing? Cherry picker.

    We can “win” if we accept a woman that constantly changes her story? This primary has included passionate arguments for and against universal health care and publically funded college education.

    Sanders didn’t vote for our foolish wars that have created instability, terror, and death. Freedom and a power vacuum are the same thing. We aren’t liberators. Sometimes, people do awful things when there’s no authority to stop them. Furthermore, we conveniently pick and choose which countries deserve intervention. There’s nothing “similar” in Sanders versus neocon Clinton on foreign policy.

    Let’s face it, you’re old, comfortable, and the status quo works for you. That’s nice. It doesn’t work for millenials and we’re tired of your concern trolling.

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