Healing the Left-Left Divide in America

Before the left, right, and center heal their differences, the left needs to move past confusion and blame

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo Credit: Yoichi Okamoto

An altercation late last year between a progressive journalist for Media Matters of America, who labeled The Young Turks (themselves progressives) as “Kremlin Cheerleaders” is symptomatic of the quintessential progressive struggle. The Young Turks had been opposed to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton throughout the primaries and part of the election. The bitter division between “mainstream” and radical activist progressives is nothing new. The tension we saw in 2016 is unexceptional. It is also not sustainable.

We saw these tensions boil over many times before; between second-wave feminists throughout the 60s and 70s [1]; between democrats in the 1970s; during the civil rights period; the gay rights period [2]; and it goes as far back as the women’s suffrage movement in the late 1800s [3].

The divide can be best summarized as this:

Radical progressives who value ideological purity view mainstreamists as impure, conceding, apologist hypocrites. A mainstreamist progressive, in the eyes of some radicals, is in some ways worse than a traditionalist who might be opposed to the radical’s views out of ignorance rather than hypocrisy.

Mainstream progressives often views radicals as using too-extreme language and techniques, thus slowing down progress for all. Mainstreamists as such view radical activists as ‘hurting their own cause’, so incapable of compromise and dialogue, that they could never actually achieve anything.

Yet progress actually happens because of interplay between the two. Radical activist progressives continue to transform the landscape. Mainstream progressives make deals, legislate, and transform mainstream public opinion. In one view, the radical activists make progress possible, and the mainstreamists make it a reality.

The tension between these two progressive camps is essential for progress. It is also a double-edged sword that can be a pitfall if we are not careful.

Looking Inward

As we dissect what went wrong and what went right in 2016, we need to look inwards. Immediately, I saw some supporters of Hillary Clinton like myself keen on attributing blame to those in the “Bernie or Bust” or “Bernie or Stein” crowd. I saw some supporters of Bernie Sanders blame the DNC or those who pushed for a flawed candidate like Hillary Clinton. Immediately, supporters of Bernie Sanders claimed he would have won this election if he were the nominee. Immediately, supporters of Hillary Clinton looked to Green party voters with dismay at having cost us all this election.

The common thread in a lot of these reaction is their failure to look inwards, the failure to accept any blame.

The Failures of Mainstreamist Progressives

Mainstream progressives are sometimes prone to engage in respectability politics. A closely related failure is being an apologist.

Rhetoric like ‘not all people of color dress this way’ or ‘talk this way’ shifts the accountability of oppression to the marginalized group. Talking about ‘cleaning up the hood’ can shift the blame regarding which societal forces led to a particular status quo to begin with.

Respectability politics wins a movement some mainstream allies, and does make movements more palatable to the majority, but it does that by absolving that majority from any guilt for bearing the fruits of this oppression of others.

Barack Obama’s flirtation with respectability politics likely helped him in white rural communities. Yet that same rhetoric likely slowed progress on racial issues.

The Failures of Radical Progressives

Radicals’ repudiation of mainstreamist progressives sometimes enters the realm of takfir-like condemnation. They can be prone to view any deviation from a given progressive ideology as not truly progressive at all.

When the mainstream progressives are not really progressives; not really racial justice activists, not really feminists, not really gay liberation activists, etc. then “unity” with them becomes meaningless.

Disagreements and fights are essential. Boycotting other liberal groups can be an effective approach to yield pressure. Yet, in their denial that mainstream progressives are progressive at all, still with worthy causes, radical progressives are sometimes prone to obstruct worthy causes.

Radicals are also more prone to view dialogue and compromise with the mainstreamists as a betrayal. This slows the essential exchange of ideas between the two camps. This exchange is the complement of the exchange of pressure between the camps. One without the other provides little value.

Healthy Tension

Protesters at the The Left OUT Party was an event organized and occurring on 26 July 2008 in San Francisco to express disappointment in the Human Rights Campaign lobbying for removal of gender identify from ENDA. Photo Credit: Cary Bass. License: CC-by-SA-3.0.

The progressive fight over ENDA is an illuminating example. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is a proposed legislation to protect from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and, in most versions, gender identity.

After a version including protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity failed, Rep. Barney Frank introduced a version of ENDA which did not include protections for gender identity. The bill was initially supported by the mainstream Human Rights Campaign, on the basis that protections for some are better than protections for none. The mainstream progressive argument was that ENDA had its best chance of passing in 30 years.

Yet, large numbers of LGBT activists determined that this betrayal of transgender individuals was not acceptable. ‘All of us or none’ was effectively their approach. ENDA eventually failed the senate after LGBT groups dropped their support of that version. In doing so, LGBT activists made it clear: transgender individuals cannot be marginalized, or offered as sacrificial lambs so that cisgender LGB individuals could gain societal acceptance. Since then, every version of ENDA introduced in congress included protections for gender identity. Since then, also, every version of ENDA introduced in congress failed.

In the 110th Congress ENDA fight, activists decided that sometimes no progress is better than some. Mainstream progressives thought passing a limited version of ENDA protecting sexual orientation first would make it easier to add protections to gender identity later.

The activists understood the delegitimizing effects of not being enumerated; a law omitting gender identity protection reinforces gender norms: it brings some into the mainstream on the expense of increasing the social pressures of respectability politics on gender-nonconforming members of the community. Laws picking favorites and protecting parts of the LGBT community but not others could serve to divide it, making it harder for transgender people to gain protections.

‘All of us or none’ was likely the right approach here. It is not clear cut, though: in the 1950s and 60s when police entrapment and harassment was rampant, protecting one group could be seen as better than protecting none.

When things go right

This tension is essential. In recognizing our pitfalls, we should not overlook how this tension has moved us forward.

Intersectional Feminism

Betty Friedan’s white middle class feminism championed in The Feminine Mystique started second-wave feminism and propelled it into a formidable movement. Yet that movement would have been worth nothing — or worse, harmful — if it weren’t for the likes of radical feminists like Florynce Kennedy, Jean O’Leary, and Gloria Steinem. These activists pushed feminism to become intersectional. They splintered off, fought with, and sometimes rejoined Friedan’s National Organization for Women (NOW). Friedan and NOW came around on lesbian rights. Kennedy educated future generations of feminists on intersectionality and radicalism.

The intersectional feminism of today, seen in movements like Black Lives Matter and organizations like present-day NOW are the product of this radical fight.

Reconstruction Amendments

The Republican Party — being the progressive party of the time — was divided into conservative, radical, and moderate factions. Radical Republicans were abolitionists who also supported full citizenship rights to all, regardless of race. Their main achievement was through a coalition with moderate Republicans, which included the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

The path to equal protection included a number of half-measures by moderate Abraham Lincoln. The emancipation proclamation in 1863 began creating facts on the ground of freed southern slaves. In 1865, the Thirteenth amendment abolished slavery without enshrining citizenship or voting rights on the freed slaves.

Before and throughout these measures, the Radical Republicans pushed for an endgame that was seen as too fetched: Full equality before the law, including citizenship and voting rights. Among those radicals was Thaddeus Stevens.

[Stevens proposed] a 14th Amendment [to] grant black men all the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote and hold public office […]. Stevens’ proposed changes were too radical even for the Radical Republicans. They drew up a new version […] which did not mention black voting rights […]
Stevens denounced the watered-down 14th Amendment as a “shilly-shally, bungling thing” but voted for it anyway. Why? “Because I live among men and not among angels,” he explained — an eloquent defense of compromise by a man frequently scorned as uncompromising.
Peter Carlson, HistoryNet

It took black suffrage until the 15th Amendment, two years after Stevens’ death, to make it to the constitution. Almost a hundred years after Stevens’ death, the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, finally included proper protections of these rights.

The fourteenth amendment still included the Equal Protection clause, which continues to fuel an expansion of civil and human rights in the United States to this day.

Lessons Moving Forward

Both brands of progressives will naturally continue to push their own perspectives. Once in a while, this will include obstructing the other. This can be healthy. Yet, progressives on both sides need to realize when they are on the path to losing a game of chicken, and then consider the cost of losing the game. In the case of ENDA, perhaps it was a game worth losing. In the case of the 2016 election, it likely wasn’t.

What mainstreamists should learn

In 2016, mainstream progressives were so sure the radicals would flinch that no substantial effort was made to reach out to them. Economic issues took a back seat in her rhetoric, and while meaningful platform concessions were reached with Bernie Sanders, no symbolic outreach, appointment, or alliance took place.

Mainstreamists need to fully understand the extent to which their progress is built on the shoulders of radical activists. Their view of radicals as a pesky distraction or obstruction, and their voiced disdain of those radicals strains the essential exchange of ideas between these two camps. It also makes it less likely for radical activists to concede and unite.

What radical progressives should learn

In 2016 also, Jill Stein and the Green Party maintained that Trump and Clinton are both horrible candidates, with Trump potentially less dangerous than Clinton. Yet embedded in these statement was a blind assumption that Clinton would win. When she didn’t, we saw Stein’s campaign pushing for recounts in states helping ‘equally horrible’ Hillary Clinton in the electoral vote.

Radical progressives are often in denial about being on the collision path in a game of chicken. They are also often in denial about the cost of losing this game. Radical progressives must rid themselves of the tendency of seeing their mainstream counterparts as ‘no better than the alternative.’

In 2016, we all failed. No progressive camp can demand a messaging and activism change of the other and expect that it alone — without undertaking similar changes — will yield different results.

Eyas is a Software Engineer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter or his Personal Blog.


  1. See letter from Genny Vida and Jean O’Leary in the New York Times in response to Betty Friedan, for example.
  2. Examples include Harry Hay’s expulsion from the Mattachine society in the 1950s. The creation of the GLF as a more radical alternative to the Mattachine Society of New York and the GAA as a splinter from the GLF in 1969. The internal conflict over the marriage movement in the 2000s. Tensions with the mainstream Human Rights Campaign in recent years.
  3. Exemplified by the tension between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and Lucy Stone’s American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Both groups were founded in 1869 and continued — often in competition or conflict — until 1890, when they merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).