The Left vs The Left

War of the rose emojis

You probably haven’t heard of a kerfuffle that went down in the online leftist arena recently.

First a word of caution — if you’re concerned this will be another tale of expanding purity tests, infighting, excommunications — well, you’re right. Alas, we proceed.

Welcome to the left.

Our story begins shortly after the election results came rolling in. Democrats had won the House by a narrower margin than they went in with, losing some seats. Control of the Senate was still up in the air. This was before the Georgia special election, after all.

House Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib (hereinafter the Squad) were all re-elected — even adding Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman to their number. For a refresher, the Squad is a group of young, progressive lawmakers in the House who gained some notoriety for their diverse backgrounds and breaking with Democratic party orthodoxy.

Despite the presidential election being contested without any evidence proving the loser’s case, bureaucratic affairs proceeded in Congress. House members all needed to vote for the next Speaker of the House. Since the Dems were in the majority, the Speaker was bound to come from their number. Thus we introduce a new, old character to the story — Nancy Pelosi. Since 2003, Nancy’s been the leader of the House Dems. She wanted the spot again.

In the interest of not nosediving into the weeds— suffice to say that with a touch of deft political maneuvering, it was possible for a few progressive members of the House to block Nancy Pelosi from becoming Speaker. The idea being that in return for their vote, these progressives could extract concessions advancing the agenda of the Left.

So, what should their demands be?

In online Left spaces, an idea formed for the Squad (& friends) to stymie Nancy’s ascension to Speaker in exchange for a Medicare for All (M4A) bill to be brought to the House floor for a vote. Historians record that the notion was first proposed by Jimmy Dore, known best for a deep anti-establishment streak. The idea was christened: #ForceTheVote.

The underlying principle is sound: we’re suffering through a national crisis, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. There’ll be no better time when the failures of our healthcare system are more blatant. We have a chance to get House Democrats (and Republicans too, why not) on the record if they’re willing to fight for every American to have health insurance — whilst said devastating pandemic rages on, no less.

We’ll have a comprehensive list of allies and enemies — checkmate, bastards. Anyone who votes against it gets primaried and removed in a few years, and anyone who votes for it is officially on record, building support across the nation. Either way, we’ll get more Representatives in power who’ll back the bill.

But wait — other leftists argued, that plan isn’t foolproof. There’s already a list of co-sponsors for the House M4A bill — we have that list of allies, and our enemies are conspicuous enough with their absence. A vote on a bill that won’t even be brought to the floor in Mitch McConnell’s Senate is just political posturing. It’s a symbolic act, not material. We should use this electoral leverage to get other things we want.

Maybe our demand should be seats on a committee, or even to chair committees. That would improve our systemic power moving forward. Maybe we should pressure an end to PAYGO, a rule where new legislation is not allowed to increase projected budget deficits. PAYGO would stop any M4A legislation in its tracks. Maybe we should push a full vote for a $15 minimum wage. That would materially improve the lives of working class Americans, too.

Maybe we should ask for the Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal to be replaced. The same Richard Neal who didn’t want the words “Medicare for All” to be spoken during the Ways and Means Committee hearing on Medicare for All. (Interestingly, that hearing only occurred thanks to Pramila Jayapal demanding it in exchange for a previous Pelosi-as-Speaker vote.)

Thanks but no thanks, #ForceTheVote leftists argued. Those are all less exigent than the right to healthcare during a pandemic. We’ve seen the limits of our system — of having insurance tied to employment. Damn near 90% of Democrats support M4A — if Dem representatives don’t, then they aren’t representatives at all.

But since the bill will die in the Senate, other leftists said, Representatives can just disingenuously back the proposition, providing low-stakes cover to ward off against future progressive challenges.

Hence our winding tale returns to the Squad — after all, their agreement was the linchpin to any #ForceTheVote plans. Justin Jackson tweeted; AOC took center stage of the drama with her reply.

If only our story could trail off here as simply the latest chapter of the left undermining itself…

But the #ForceTheVote crowd took umbrage at AOC’s unwillingness to abide by their desired tactic.

Jimmy Dore stated: “[AOC] is standing between you and healthcare.” #FraudSquad began trending. #ForceTheVote leftists relayed that AOC is just a careerist with no vision and even less courage.

However, the disparagement was not contained merely within the walls of Congress, it went forth across the interwebs, blighting the discourse for months.

This parallel rage extended past sniping at a politician on Twitter, bristling outwards to attack other leftists who likewise disagreed. And the height of leftist rebuke was hurled without remorse — calling dissenters neoliberals.

And so the left was splintered asunder, salvos lobbed back and forth across the imagined ravine — brother against brother, comrade against comrade, rose emoji against rose emoji.

At least, online.

Thus an oddity emerges…

Philosophy-wise, these leftists all agree on a variety of issues. One of many examples — they believe in healthcare as a human right, and they even agree that it should look like Medicare for All.

Strategy-wise, they agree that electoral pressure generated by leftist movements should be used by progressive House members to win concessions that push forward their agenda.

Tactics-wise, they diverge on what’s best to exchange for this one Speaker of the House vote.

But narrator, you might say, if a distinction on tactics is the separating point when they agree on so much else, then where is this vitriol coming from?

Indeed, errors occur when conflating tactical disagreement with philosophical sin. If sinners fail to repent, the pressure to excommunicate them only builds, else the entire community be tarred.

But I warned you from the start — that’s the left.

Every story has lessons for us, and this one is solidarity — sharing community with the stranger.

I’m a part of the left. I want Medicare for All, since it’s currently the strongest viable path to everyone in this country receiving healthcare as a human right, regardless of employment or wealth. I want the left to succeed in any number of things.

I don’t think we get there without a politics of solidarity with each other. Here, solidarity looks like taking a tactical divergence for what it is — not totalizing everyone who disagrees as neoliberal frauds or divisive careerists who’d betray the cause for Tesla stock.

One of my favorite podcasts, Bad Faith, recently featured an episode called Briahna Joy Gray vs. Sam Seder on #ForceTheVote. I have affection for both of the debaters, but it was Virgil Texas, the co-host of the podcast, who articulated my thesis on this whole mess:

“If #ForceTheVote is a tactical disagreement, then would you accept that supporters of Medicare for All might simply have other ideas of how to get to that point that do not involve the specific tactic of withholding the vote?”

If the answer is yes, then solidarity can be at play, and we can work with each other towards the world we agree we both want.

But if the answer is no — if this (or any other) tactical disagreement means we must find the villains, root out the frauds — then the path to winning is lost to us. The current state of leftist power indicates that we need to be additive, not subtractive.

Unintentionally, gatekeeping who really cares about public healthcare distracted from the solidarity a pluralistic, coalitional movement requires of us. Internecine fights are doubly damaging when the left is up against itself.

None of this is made better by being online. Online cultures don’t incentivize camaraderie, they incentivize outrage and exaggeration. It’s everywhere — YouTube videos, subtweets, discord servers, comments sections, Insta stories, live chats, response videos, Threads: [1/?] .

#ForceTheVote is no exception, with the arguments tenaciously ongoing.

There’s an affinity for cancel culture lurking within this debate — the impulse to abstract and essentialize. Abstraction takes specific actions and makes them into a general statement. Essentializing turns that generic statement into character deficiencies.

Through abstraction, “AOC argued for a $15 minimum wage vote & to elevate progressives into leadership positions — instead of a floor vote for M4A” morphs into “AOC and the Squad won’t fight for Medicare for All.”

Through essentializing, that boils down to “She’s standing between you and healthcare” & “The Squad are neoliberal frauds.”

Purity tests are another essential cancelling feature — not only to separate them from us. But in condemning others, we extol our own virtuous performance. Ritualized exclusions testify to our own self-righteousness profiles.

Still — politicians should be held accountable. Working people all over this country are suffering, and our representatives have been failing us for longer than I’ve been alive. The US has a long history of our political establishment siding against us in favor of lobbyists and corporate donors, billionaires and landlords. Criticizing or even maligning the actions of any given politician is a necessary part of a working democracy.

We’re right to focus on what they do and what they don’t do, not who they are inside. As Medicare for All activists articulate, movement pressure from outside will force politicians to act in our favor. We don’t need 218 House Representatives who love Medicare for All in their hearts — we just need their votes.

A national conversation about underinsured Americans or a list of Representatives to be primaried are valuable goals — but they aren’t material in and of themselves. A shitlist of 103 House Democrats who don’t support the House Medicare for All bill (and a voting record to prove it) is useful, but it doesn’t grant health coverage to the 15 million Americans who lost their employer-based health insurance during the pandemic.

Articles making the case for political action, like Briahna’s, are essential rallying points for constituents to pressure representatives with. To borrow a metaphor from her debate with Sam, if the tactic is a car and you don’t like the driver (whoever’s leading the push for the tactic), then take the wheel yourself. Drive us more capably — lets say to Kansas.

But if we all want to make it to the Sunflower State, then those whose plan involves taking a plane or a train, or hopscotching there, doesn’t mean that secretly they never wanted to reach Kansas — even if their way doesn’t make all that much sense.

Perhaps we can refocus our attention with the help of organizers like Joshua Kahn Russell, who’s spent over a decade fighting to defeat the Dakota Access Pipeline — a victory that seems closer than ever. He offers advice to the online left, contrasting with his on-the-ground experiences organizing for justice.

“If your primary relationship to movements is about your identity as a leftist, that’s what makes people so vulnerable to the nonsense division. The online left seems obsessed with debating who’s a real leftist or a fake leftist and who’s a sellout. It’s very attached to this idea of who’s legitimate or not.”

Solidarity acts as a vital ingredient between ostracizing an ally and building winning coalitions.

Importantly, the #ForceTheVote response itself isn’t universally unfounded. Under other material and political conditions, the Squad could indeed deserve the ire such fervent detractors have directed their way.

Yet who among us thinks that Medicare for All passes, pick a year — let’s say 2026 — and the Squad voted against it? Or do we think that Squad members, democratic socialists, social democrats, and progressives of various stripes were among the leading proponents of how we eventually got it pushed through Congress?

Instead, we disempower and dishearten ourselves if we excise our most influential allies. The same goes doubly for when we disavow each other.

Solidarity, along with democracy, aren’t peripheral luxuries. For a broad, winning leftist coalition, they must be front and center in our common struggles.

Briahna Joy Gray reminded us in a Michael Brooks Show tribute episode:

“[Michael] did foreground solidarity in such an important way. That’s ultimately what’s lacking. Someone to make us prioritize those shared interests above the differences that of course exist in a diverse pluralistic society. But I have plenty of confidence about the ability to corral us all — no matter what my twitter timeline suggests.”

It’s never the wrong time to tell that story.

Because that’s the left. We fight, and we fight on, together.

— Yours in solidarity



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