Some hard but important truths for the left

*If you are doing politics, you are a politician. It doesn’t matter if you’re a political theorist, a trotskyist activist, an Instagram tankie, a podcast host or if you just tweet sometimes. Just because you’re not getting paid doesn’t change this. As a politician it is your job to win people over to your point of view and to think strategically about how what you have to say will be heard and interpreted.

*Generally speaking, the way to win people over is to adopt a relaxed and confident demeanor, actively listen to them, and make a great show of appearing reasonable, warm, thoughtful, concerned etc. You should emphasize how your message fits with the existing values of your audience. Not least of their values will be their self-interest and -what is similar but subtly different to self-interest- their special sympathy for people they perceive as in a similar social position to themselves.

*As a broad guideline, you should not base your message on the premise that your audience is morally obliged to support you. Whether it’s true or not, it usually doesn’t work. Certainly do not scold your audience. The following tweets that came out just after the election are examples of what not to do in that regard:

“So I guess 55% of white women like their P***y’s grabbed & don’t think sexual assault is a deal breaker. They don’t deserve ovaries. But they do deserve the hell the rich ones live in being subservient to their rich racist husbands, or the hell the bitter ones have just existing.”

“I’ll never forget when my “best friend” of like 3 years told me she supports trump and agrees with the immigration laws…. she’s Hispanic and was an immigrant herself… yall I cut her off that very DAY. I was appalled”

“No more stories about the economic woes of the white working class.They’re racist. Period. Focus on Black women who delivered votes, Muslims who delivered votes, young AAPI who are fastest growing & overwhelmingly LEFT & the heterogeneity of Latinx voters.”

“Dear 55% of white women: Don’t come around here with your faux allyship talking about suffrage and feminism. We see you. We are not aligned. Y’all wear me out. A MAJORITY OF YOU voted for this clown.”

* For whatever reason, much of the left seems particularly prone to moralism on race at the moment, but a different kind of anti-racist politics is possible. Much of the framing around race assumes that it’s a zero sum game- to the extent that one “side” wins the other loses. Because of this zero sum framing, people feel they have no option but to excoriate whites to surrender their privilege. However if we take seriously the role of class, we recognize that the right-wing (of both parties!) use race as a wedge to keep everyone except the super-rich divided against each other. Overcoming these wedge tactics can lead to material gains for everyone except the very rich thus opposing racism is in the interests of the vast majority of white people, even if they don’t realize it yet. Another way in which this comes out is in discourse about police brutality, mass incarceration etc. The United States has an unusually high rate of these, and this is particularly true for people of color, but ultimately a portion of that excess brutality gets rolled out to everyone thus opposing police violence, and the racism it entails, is in everyone’s interests.

*None of this is to say that ethical argument altogether is bad, just that it needs to be combined with- and preferably seamlessly interwoven with, arguments about self interest, and the interests of people like the listener. Absolutely try to prick the listener’s sense of justice, but don’t run it headlong against their self-interest.

*One of the biggest myths about politics is that the center have more room to politically manouvre than the left- because they can tack either left or right. Maybe there used to be a sense in which this is true, but it’s not any more. The center are at least approximately glued to the way things are and to small c conservatism. In a country where most people are deeply dissatisfied(1), they have nothing to offer to those who aren’t already voting for them but warm platitudes (Biden) or moralistic hectoring (Clinton’s oft remembered quote about “deplorables”).

*The left by contrast have a lot of room to manouvre. When I’m talking to a young person I can emphasize college debt relief. When I’m talking to a middle aged person I can emphasize free healthcare. When I’m talking to an older person I can emphasize the importance of defending social security etc.


(1) As of July 2020, 8 in 10 Americans thought the country was heading in the wrong direction

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