Liberalism Needs the “Alt-Left”

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In the 2016 election, it was Sean Hannity on Fox News , it is a form of propaganda used to conflate groups like Black Lives Matter with the Ku Klux Klan. For Wolcott to ascribe to this notion only gives this right-wing smear more credence.

Blair invokes the specter of a “dangerous” left for different reasons. By equating the populist left’s hostility toward big business and the 1 percent with the populist right’s hostility toward migrants and people of color, he is creating a false equivalence that undermines progressivism as a whole. The ultra-wealthy patrons of the Republican Party (and, to a lesser extent, the Democratic Party) are, in fact, much to blame for deep inequality we see in the United States. Globalization did gouge the working and middle classes in the West, most notoriously during the Great Recession, even as it lifted millions out of poverty in other parts of the world. Political elites did fail us, from the Iraq War to the financial crisis.

Yet this is how Blair frames the debate over these issues:

Today, a distinction that often matters more than traditional right and left is open vs. closed. The open-minded see globalization as an opportunity but one with challenges that should be mitigated; the closed-minded see the outside world as a threat. This distinction crosses traditional party lines and thus has no organizing base, no natural channel for representation in electoral politics.

The last half of Blair’s op-ed argues for achieving “radical change” by reaching for voters who remain in the “big space in the center.” Tellingly, he calls for an alliance between Silicon Valley—an industry of socially liberal economic elites—and public policy. In his closing line, Blair states that “we must build a new coalition that is popular, not populist.”

There are two ironies in Blair’s column. The first is that Blair himself was partly responsible for his Labour Party losing a large chunk of its core working-class voters, thanks to the Iraq War and the Great Recession. The second is that huge pillars of Blair’s British-style “moderate” liberalism—such as universal health care—are totally in line with what the American populist left is demanding. The populist left, in other words, is well within the mainstream of Western democratic tradition; it is apparently their anti-elitist rhetoric that really rubs Blair the wrong way. He is, after all, an elite himself.

One big lesson from Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump was her campaign’s over-reliance on the mythical moderate voter. (Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer encapsulated this line of thinking in an infamously bad projection: “For every blue-collar Democrat we will lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two or three moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia.” It didn’t quite work out that way.) Wolcott and Blair do not address this problem. In different ways, they make a case for “the center” based on a bad-faith argument that the populist left is the same brand of scourge as the nationalist right.

In American politics at least, the political center is the space between a functional liberal democratic party and one hijacked by white nationalists. This is not a promising ground on which liberals can build “out from,” as Blair puts it. Whether he likes it or not, the case remains that the Democratic Party will need its left wing to mobilize working-class and young, progressive voters; the left will need institutions like the Democratic Party if it wants to win elections. Over the next few years, there will be time for arguments over strategies and priorities. But there is no time for liberals to try to delegitimize the populist left; it will only cut their own legs out from under them.

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