In This Episode
A few weeks ago the left-wing writer and critic Freddie DeBoer published an essay in New York magazine, in which he argued that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become “just a regular old Democrat now.” The piece described left-wing dissatisfaction with AOC’s record in Congress as an outgrowth of a larger left-wing disaffection with U.S. politics, and concluded the Democratic Party is simply structurally resistant to socialist change. DeBoer generated a lot of warranted counter-criticism, but also captured something very real about the sentiments of marginal Democrats—the ones who might vote blue as means of blocking authoritarians from victory, or who might abstain from voting when left-wing candidates lose their primaries. In that world, disenchantment with AOC and the left wing of the Democratic Party is palpable, and raises some interesting questions: Is their disenchantment rooted in real grievances? Are Democratic politics really so resistant to left-wing pressure that the Democratic Socialists of America ought to stop deluding themselves? What could DSA or future AOCs do to have a bigger impact on policy, one that wouldn’t leave so many of its members with the sense that it’s all pointless? Host Brian Beutler moderates a debate between Eric Levitz, a New York Magazine writer who wrote a lengthy critique of the DeBoer article, and Ryan Grim, the DC Bureau Chief of The Intercept and author of the forthcoming book The Squad.
Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful. With me your host, Brian Beutler. A few weeks ago, the left wing writer and critic Fredrik deBoer published an essay in New York magazine where he argued that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive Democrat from New York, has become, quote, “just a regular old Democrat now.” But the piece wasn’t actually or really only about AOC’s particular record in Congress. It was more about how left wing dissatisfaction with her record in Congress is a case in point of a larger left wing criticism of U.S. politics. To quote deBoer, “too pure to live lefties who insisted that nothing would ever come from all this noise were right and that the Democratic Party is simply structurally resistant to socialist change. The argument in his essay generated a lot of counter criticism, much of which I thought was justified. But as long as we’re talking symbols, I also think it captured something very real about the sentiments of left wing people whom I think we can call marginal Democrats, people who straddle the line between participants and non-participants in mainstream politics who might vote for Democratic candidates as a means of blocking authoritarians or fascists from gaining power, or who might just throw up their hands and abstain if and when progressive candidates lose their primaries. In that world, disenchantment with AOC and the left wing of the Democratic Party in general is pretty palpable. And I think that raises some pretty interesting questions. First among them is their disenchantment rooted in real, meaningful grievances? And then more broadly, is Democratic politics really so resistant to left wing pressure that the left’s activists and its main party, the Democratic Socialists of America, ought to just stop deluding themselves, like, are they tilting at windmills if they try to change policy through the system or to turn it around if this kind of entryism is worth the effort? What could DSA or future AOC’s do to have a bigger impact, one that wouldn’t leave so many of its members with the sense that all of this is pointless. Is the Biden presidency, which is moderate or centrist in some ways, but populist and egalitarian in others. Is it the forcing mechanism that will divide coalition builders from purists on the left? I think these questions are timely for a couple of reasons. One, because they’re the very questions at the heart of the disarray on the organized left right now. And two, because Democrats could frankly use the votes in 2024 and there’s value in settling the question in a way that brings self-identified lefties along for the ride. So let’s hash out how possible that is and how important it is. Eric Levitz is a writer also for New York magazine who published a lengthy critique of the deBoer article. And Ryan Grim is DC bureau chief of The Intercept and author of the forthcoming book The Squad. About wait for it, The Squad, and they’re my guests this week. So thanks, guys, for doing this.
Eric Levitz: Yeah, thanks for having us.
Ryan Grim: Thanks, Brian.
Brian Beutler: Three white guys here to—
Ryan Grim: There you go.
Brian Beutler: —scrutinize AOC. [laughter] Ryan, I want to start with you. Since the grassroots left is a big part of your beat. How frequently do encountered this kind of disaffection in your reporting?
Ryan Grim: Very frequently. All the time. It’s a big thing, but it’s particularly a big thing on social media. The places where it has kind of filtered down into actual politics are much more limited, I think. I don’t know how much you’ve been following Rhode Island, but Rhode Island’s politics kind of became an in real life version. Of what would happen if you took the kind of. Alt left YouTube critique of the Democratic Party and applied it in an electoral context. It began with a very earnest co-op, a I did a couple of podcasts about it, like they were going to call themselves a they were called themselves a co-op. They ran candidates for governor and lieutenant governor and state House and won a decent number of kind of state House seats. And then they descended into complete acrimony and chaos and a bunch of the ones who were elected on that banner either left or were kicked out. And they have spent the rest of the time now just kind of criticizing the Democratic Party. They’ve they’ve basically abandoned any coalition work, the DSA, which seems to be linked up with them in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island DSA has decided they’re endorsing zero Democrats. The only thing they’re doing in this special election for an upcoming House seat is attacking the most left wing Democrat. It’s a it’s become a wild kind of ride in Rhode Island. So that seems to me what kind of what happens when this becomes actualized in on the ground. But otherwise, you see it a lot in that you see it a lot on Twitter or what used to be Twitter, but you see it a lot less because Twitter is just not what it used to be. And so I think that that is actually affecting it as well. But I think buried in that are some very valid criticisms or critiques of of what could have been even if they rested perhaps on expectations that were never actually going to be met by the people coming into Congress in 2018, known as The Squad.
Brian Beutler: In that microcosm of Rhode Island. It was it like everyone loses or was there any extent to which the fact that they tried this experiment, it didn’t work, did it leave the the the Democratic Party with a coalition of people who who splintered off of the left and said, you know what, screw those guys. We’re going to just remain in coalition with you. Or did those marginal Democrats leave with with the DSA crew?
Ryan Grim: I think the best that probably could be said for it is that it brought in disaffected working class people into the process who otherwise would have stayed out. And though and a significant number of those people are now either in office or are working with in coalition with a growing progressive kind of power in Rhode Island, and even so, they’ve kind of left behind that element but are still in are still in the game and while in the game are making real, real gains and may elect a left wing member of Congress in a couple of weeks, I think when is that special election and they’ve definitely pushed it you know there’s been that that growing coalition, that growing power in Rhode Island has pushed, you know, real progressive change in in a state that is the most right wing Democratic run state. You know, it’s just it’s a one party state. But some of those Democrats are as right wing as Freedom Caucus types.
Brian Beutler: Eric, I’m going to bring you in one second. I just have one quick lesson for Ryan. So you, you sort of alluded to, like what might have been if, if The Squad had done certain things differently, lay out the most above board critique of the left wing of the House Democratic—
Ryan Grim: Right.
Brian Beutler: —Caucus so that we have something to.
Ryan Grim: Right.
Brian Beutler: Like root this conversation.
Ryan Grim: So the critique would be that they became part of the system and that if they had come in and that The Squad ended up being just kind of a way to brand four people rather than an organized kind of caucus of four, of four lawmakers. And I think that they would all agree with that. That it actually they they did not operate as a as a caucus even that as the name squad implies that they would kind of work together. In 2018, before she had won her general election, Ocasio-Cortez talked about forming a sub caucus because and she and she laid out, I think, very cogently the criticism of the Progressive Caucus that it was too big in the sense that it allowed in too many people who were not actually progressive, who only wanted to be in the Progressive Caucus because that was a useful box to check against the primary back home. And she floated the idea, well, maybe we need a sub caucus, like a Freedom Caucus type of situation, like you have the Republican Study Group that’s 120 plus, you know, pretty right wing Republicans and the Freedom Caucus said, no, that’s not enough. We want our 24 and we’re going to vote together as a bloc. And, you know, we’re going to hold hands and we’re going to take heat and we’re going to and we’re going to force the hand of party leadership and they ended up not doing that. They did not form a sub caucus and there was a lot of concern that they would do that. The there were people within Ocasio-Cortez’s camp. You probably know them. Saikat Chakrabarti and her chief of staff, Corbin Trent, who had kind of cofounded Justice Democrats who were pushing for more and more bloc work, you know, between the most left wing Democrats and trying to link it up with the Bernie movement and trying to link that up with fundraising so that every time let’s say Nancy Pelosi says, oh, that’s just four people, boom, you raise $500,000 online every time Josh Gottheimer attacks Ilhan Omar for whatever he’s attacking her for she raises $100,000. You know, every time Trump tells him to go back to Africa, they raise $10 million and that you then defend yourself against attacks by making it that costly. And you’ve seen models for that every time. When Nina Turner was running in a special election, every time when Hillary Clinton endorsed her opponent, small donors gave $100,000 to Nina Turner. When Clyburn jumped in, I think they gave small donors, gave like $50,000 to Nina Turner. They were trying to set up a kind of counter will to the mainstream wing of the Democratic Party that would operationalize all of that energy. And that never happened. And so the energy dissipated and turned in on itself and has become hostile, rancid and toxic. So the question is, was there a way to channel and operationalize that other than say, all right, for instance, force this, quote unquote, “force the vote?” They said this is not a this is not a smart idea tactically. Well, then what is like that would be the counterargument. Okay. If that’s not the thing to do, then what? Like, you’ve got millions of people here who have invested their hopes in first the Bernie movement and now evolving into The Squad. What? Give us give us something to fight for. And they never quite figured out a way to channel all all of that. That would, I think, be the best critique that you could make.
Brian Beutler: Okay. So let’s just stipulate for for, for now that the The Squad could have organized itself in a way that would have made it a more effective, higher leverage group of people in the House Democratic Caucus and that might have had unknown political and policy ramifications. Eric, you made, I thought, a really good case that the Democrats have actually accommodated a lot of left wing asks, which I think implies in some sense that the Democratic Party recognizes they do have clout and leverage, and that’s translated into a bunch of important material policy gains. Does Ryan’s assessment of this or his analysis, this idea that they could have gotten more out of the situation ring true, or do you think that they optimized themselves and and did sort of as well as you might could ever expect a small rump like this to do?
Eric Levitz: Right. Yeah. I mean, I think that there’s a couple different entities here. One is the broad left in the sense of those who were disaffected with Obama’s presidency and kind of had their politics and political identity somewhat defined by the left wing critique of Obama, which was initially represented as kind of the figurehead for that was Elizabeth Warren, and it became Bernie Sanders. So there’s that broad group of the Democratic left, and then there’s the specific group of The Squad. So in terms of what The Squad could have done to maximize their gains, I need to be somewhat humble about counterfactuals. I don’t know what would have happened if if other decisions were made, but I think that we saw in the course of the negotiations over what started out as Build Back Better and became the Inflation Reduction Act. The fundamentally there’s just kind of a misconception that I think some on the left have that you see Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema sort of holding the Democratic agenda hostage to their demands. And there’s a sense that, well, we can form our own splinter group and exercise the same kind of blocking power. But the fundamental issue is that. In a negotiation like that, whoever is actually in a position to walk away, whoever is the most ready to say, you know what, I’m fine with nothing we can just do nothing has the upper hand. Because, you know, fundamentally when when it comes down to it, you know, Bernie Sanders might say he wants $6 trillion worth of new climate and social spending. Joe Manchin may prefer 700 billion or whatever, but when push comes to shove, Manchin’s okay with zero. He’s okay with going back to West Virginia and saying, I blew up the entire Biden agenda. And and Bernie Sanders wants to help people. He wants to get that money out the door. And so fundamentally and so I just think that fundamental dynamic would govern given the current, you know, the actual distribution of congressional votes during Biden’s first two years in office and then especially now, you know, ultimately the median member of Congress, the one who decides whether you get a majority in the House or Senate, is the one with the veto power, not, you know, and and we see this, you know, with the Freedom Caucus and the conservative hard liners, fundamentally they wanted to really drive a really hard bargain on the debt ceiling. And we ended up with something that much more closely resembled the preferences of, you know, more quote unquote, “moderate Republicans and Democrats,” because fundamentally, they hold the balance of power in Congress, not, you know, Louie Gohmert or whatever. So, yeah, I just I don’t think there’s a model of the blocking thing makes a whole lot of sense to me. I think that the broader Democratic left has had a lot of success in one, you know, winning enough elections and organizing and mobilizing enough people and dollars to force Democrats to take their critique seriously. And then also, I think the kind of you know, I, I think as an actual presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren was not terribly strong, but the Warren kind of model of change, which is sort of wonks marching through the institutions and then getting in on the inside and running things, I think has probably produced the most dividends. You see, basically that wing has taken over the FTC runs a whole lot of the economic policy for the White House. And so, you know, this combination of outside pressure, winning elections, you know, pushing the envelope in that way, and then sort of just, you know, long march to the institutions, getting in key, getting, you know, your elite members in key positions of power to exercise leverage over the agenda. That seems to me where the left has really made their gains.
Brian Beutler: So, Ryan, like, what would be the response to this? Like there are real gains you can point to, but that if The Squad had formed a caucus and had tried to throw their weight around and threaten to kill, Build Back Better, IRA because it didn’t include any structural reform that just ends up killing the bill as opposed to, well, maximizing the left wing interests.
Ryan Grim: Yeah, I don’t know, I think there’s a lot to be said for Eric’s analysis right there, particularly when it comes to dynamics of Manchin and and who who’s willing to walk away. I would add, though, that the left, including the Progressive Caucus, did say we will kill all of this. And I do think that actually there to the two track strategy that where they kept the bills together they said we’re not doing one without the other. We’re not doing it, we won’t approve infrastructure until we approve Build Back Better. I think it dragged Manchin along long enough that it that it does deserve some credit for keeping alive this the entire process. It’s true, though, that in the end, all the power rested with Manchin when he in December decided, you know what, I’m walking away. There was no power at that point that AOC had to bring him back to the table. He had to kind of be brought back to the table. But I think that he had gotten so far in December that he really did want to get something done with that point. And one of the reasons he got so far in December is because of the pressure from the Progressive Caucus to say, no, we’re not doing this and we’re not we’re not doing your infrastructure bill unless we also do the climate bill. So I think there was that tactical opening, and I think they pushed it pretty far. But I think in general, Eric’s point is true. It assumes, though, that the status quo and what I’m saying is that there was a hope that the political revolution that Bernie Sanders talked about would revolutionize the party. And so that the median Democratic member of Congress, who Eric rightly says is the one who’s kind of deciding, you know, policy in the end is a different person. And we have seen a significant change in who the median Democrat is from, you know, 2006 or eight, then up till today. It is remarkable, for instance, that New Democrats are kind of the lead champions of the child tax credit. And that. New Democrats and front line Democrats once again in these vulnerable districts, were begging the Biden administration, begging Manchin to get a robust Build Back Better pass so that they would have something to run on. That is the 180 degree opposite of 2009 and ten when front line Democrats cast votes for the Affordable Care Act or for the climate change bill as kind of moral gestures, sac— Throwing themselves on their swords, sacrificing themselves for the greater good, believing rightly or wrongly, but believing that the votes that they were casting, we’re going to hurt them and cost them reelection. And to this time, those median Democrats who are in vulnerable districts actually wanted more action. A lot of that is structural. You’ve got the financial crisis. You got the, you know, the slow recovery after that. So the material conditions up under the system changed. But it also, I think, small dollars and the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wings of the party now changed what people wanted out of the party. And so if The Squad combined with Bernie and I don’t, like Bernie, needs to be a part of this and Bernie is not. That’s why this was never going to happen. Like, AOC would have had to browbeat Bernie into doing it because Bernie is just not a political revolutionary. Like, even though he ran on a political revolution. He likes Joe, he likes Chuck, he trusts Chuck is still, even though as an independent, is a he’s a supporter of the party. And so the entire expectation that people had was set up to fail because you were never going to get the clash that people wanted because Bernie would have needed to be involved in it. And Bernie was never going to be involved. But Bernie loved AOC, still does today, but in 2019 was fascinated by her, like watched her really, like, revive his campaign, and then The Squad in general revive his campaign and almost push him into the nomination. Like, imagine a world where The Squad does talk Bernie, into saying we need to set up this kind of sub organization within the Democratic Party that is actively supporting primary challengers against Democrats who are, you know, not not voting with us on, say, Build Back Better that what that would have done is it would have cut Bernie and The Squad out of a lot of the internal kind of you’re not in the room if you’re throwing those grenades. But does it change the kind of conditions on the ground enough that that median Democrat moves enough, that then you’ve kind of transformed the party? That was what Justice Democrats set out to do, but couldn’t really because The Squad was not really supporting Justice Democrats in its bid to primary a lot of Democrats, yet they still suffered a lot of the consequences. And I write about this a lot in the book that they still suffered because 100 plus members who were facing primaries all all saw the hand of AOC behind their primary challengers in 2019 2020, even though she only endorsed two or three. But what she didn’t really understand at the time was that two or three might as well be 100, but you’re either 100% on the team or you’re not. And so they paid the price of not being able to be kind of team players because everybody hated them for supporting primary challengers. But then they also didn’t kind of support a lot of primary challengers. Justice Democrats just had to lay off, I think more than half of staff facing, you know, huge, you know, fundraising headwinds, which is an example of the way that the kind of revolution was not operationalized.
Brian Beutler: So I hear one story and I think they’re compatible stories about strategic screw ups and some level of naivete. And then I hear, Eric, you know, your I think your point is like what you wrote in your piece was a Democratic Party might actually be, quote, “structurally resistant to socialist change” in the way you laid out, because they just don’t have the willingness to blow it all up. I add it all up and it actually kind of makes me a bit more sympathetic to impatient left wingers. Right. Like like there’s a lot of radical policy ground between neo liberalism and the abolition of capital, which is I think you’re definitely right. The Democratic Party is structurally resistant to abolishing capital, but I think it’d be fair for radicals to say we have Bernie, we have The Squad. If not for them, the rescue plan and the Inflation Reduction Act probably would have been less generous. So we give them credit for keeping those things alive and progressive. And now we have full employment and we have labor action and a huge amount of money for clean energy. But they could also say, look like economic winds turn, politics turns. And when they do, these things that we’re all celebrating will be gone like they won’t last or they won’t renew themselves. But systemic change, the kinds of things that have attracted us to Bernie Sanders in the first place would outlast the tides of politics. And the progressives in the Democratic Party have been completely unable to use their their leverage to advance those kinds of structural reform. Like there’s no single payer, no new antitrust laws, no appetite for anything like that in the arena. And if those were what your ultimate hopes were not getting Bernie into office or getting AOC in office. But then that would mean more than just incrementally more money for existing social programs then probably like have a feel like you have a reasonable beef, right?
Eric Levitz: Yeah. Well, I think there’s definitely plenty of grounds for both disappointment in what? The COVID crisis and Biden’s election brought in plenty of grounds for real anger and disillusionment with just the state of reality in the United States from a left wing or social democratic perspective. Right? I mean, we are one of the only advanced industrial countries that doesn’t have a truly comprehensive universal health care system. We don’t have the kind of child care benefits and child allowances that are common in Western Europe. We don’t have as much paid time off. We don’t have as high union density. These things are not great in a lot of ways in the United States, especially from the progressive perspective. At the same time, the fact that that one gets one’s expectations really high does not mean that like the fact that those expectations aren’t meant can be laid at the feet of the leadership of the Democratic Party or of Joe Biden. When fundamentally, your movement needs to translate those expectations into concrete political gains. And we’re talking about a situation in which, you know, the Democratic coalition writ large, but that includes the progressive wing, failed to elect more than 50 senators in a context where, you know, the nation was in a pandemic crisis and recession and had a flamboyantly corrupt and incompetent Republican president at the head of the ticket, who was fairly unusually unpopular for incumbent president. And this did not. We were not able to exploit that into large congressional majorities. That’s a problem. But that’s not a problem that the DNC in their Machiavellian way is undermining, you know, this massive majoritarian call for social democracy. It’s we have not built up the popular forces to support systemic change. We can’t win more than 50 Senate seats running against a flagrantly reactionary party. And so that’s just that’s just a fundamental challenge of where we are in history, where the balance of political forces currently lie at the margin. Could different decisions by Democratic leaders potentially get us a bit closer? Pave the way a bit better for the kind of change that we want to see? Yes. Have historically, there have been like really key moments in history, such as, you know, the Jimmy Carter presidency when we had sort of pretty large Democratic majorities. We had an economic crisis and there was a question of which way we were going to try to resolve this. And Carter chose not to prioritize labor law reform, chose not to prioritize the interests of labor unions. That then helps to abet the decline of labor unions in the ensuing decades. That, in turn, reduces the sort of key civic institutions of progressive politics. So yeah, you can say that Democratic leaders, they have agency over overall this stuff, but it’s not it’s not really vast. Chuck Schumer is not the reason why, you know, we didn’t get single payer fundamentally with the progressive movement and leftists want to see systemic change. They need to build a mass popular base that is capable of electing a majority in Congress that wants to see systemic change. There’s no shortcut around that just by, you know, having AOC kind of throw more of a tantrum on the House floor or something. I mean, that’s just not how it works. I don’t know.
Brian Beutler: I want Ryan to respond to that because my instinct is like, mostly that’s true. But also Chuck Schumer is sort of responsible for like why Kyrsten Sinema is a senator.
Eric Levitz: Absolutely. That’s a choice. [laughter] But the thing is still Manchin.
Brian Beutler: No, I know. I know. And like, is it really just like a historical curiosity that that Democrats in 2020, with Trump at the helm and a pandemic and a recession won the election, but like kind of not by much? Or is that a consequence of the decisions of like leading party actors? Like, to me, the buck’s got to stop somewhere and it’s kind of a it feels like a cop out to say just kind of where we are in history, you know what I mean?
Eric Levitz: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think that a large part of the answer in the Senate, anyway, is the fact that we have seen this new pattern of partisan polarization in which increasingly white non-college educated voters vote for the right and white college educated voters vote for the left. And the way that we draw our state borders in this country creates a lot more states where, first of all, there just way more non-college educated people in the country to begin with than college educated. But on top of that, what makes it worse is that the way that the state lines work, there’s a lot of heavily white, heavily non-college educated states such that those voters have disproportionate representation in the Senate. And that makes it really hard to build large majorities for progressive change when your progressive coalition consists primarily of nonwhite voters in coalition with college educated white ones. So we’ve seen this pattern of polarization in countries throughout the West. It seems to be partly a product of the increasing salience of social and cultural issues that in opinion polling does tend to to split such that, you know, college educated voters are more supportive of immigration than non-college educated voters in pretty much every country and things like that. And so I don’t know, it’s just a really difficult situation to be in for the left, because if you don’t want to compromise on those social issues and the left obviously exists to not do that, then it does seem to me like there’s just a rather fundamental coalitional challenge here. The hope is that if you were able to really robustly serve the economic interests of non-college educated voters, that they would prioritize those commitments over potentially some of their more center right social views or else that prosperity would potentially liberalize those views. But, you know, I don’t know. It’s a tough thing to execute and it’s tough to get from one place to the other because you end up in a chicken the egg situation, if you accept that theory of change where, okay, what we need to do to fundamentally change politics so that we can have large majorities in Congress is pass a sweeping, incredibly ambitious economic program, the biggest since the New Deal. But in order to pass that kind of program, we need to first solve this political problem that the way that the country is polarized and it’s really hard to get, you know, how do you get out of that, that, that bind.
Brian Beutler: Where I feel like gratified because I think we’re kind of living through like a test of that theory right now is like we will find out if things like full employment, higher wages really do kind of mechanically overwhelm people’s or the median voter’s inclination towards sort of center right or right wing cultural politics. And I hate to have to, like, learn that lesson in the real world where it’s like Joe Biden versus Donald Trump and only one of them can win. But it is kind of good to know, like, are you going to be able to overwhelm these very dark forces by just governing well in an incremental fashion and then maybe building up the kind of power you need to do something a bit more sweeping like the New Deal or are you just kind of screwed whichever way you go where, like, it doesn’t matter how well you govern the country and how good you make the economy, if you can’t win the culture wars stuff, then you’re never going to get more than these, like marginal victories or else you’re going to lose. And so you need to actually solve that problem first on like on its own terms, not not kind of try to do a like a detour around them through economic governing.
Ryan Grim: I’m on my phone now. Yeah. I guess what I would say to that is not necessarily disagree with a lot of it, but to say that from the perspective of a lot of people who put their energy into the Bernie Sanders campaign and then put their hopes into The Squad, now a lot of them put their hopes into The Squad after they were elected. They were elected by a kind of local organizations. So for the most part, with the help of and, you know, Justice Democrats flying in, they look at the world and they don’t see the kind of incremental gains as sufficient. You know they they hear Ocasio-Cortez talking about having 12 years to turn everything around or that we’re going to reach climate tipping points that will lead to apocalypse. If you hear a lot of the people who the protesters who kind of occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office with AOC in back in November of 2018, you know, they wanted to upend everything. They wanted to change the Washington. They wanted to shift the structures at work. And so anything short of that, they’re going to look at it as a as a failure. And so you can say that while their expectations weren’t realistic or, you know, that you can point to all all of the gains that have been made when it comes to climate funding or wage increases at the lower end or on unemployment being down on and on, but it’s but, you know, people are still feeling a sense of kind of existential dread about the state of the world. And and so compared to that, I think that’s where you see a lot of the the anger that they they look at the Freedom Caucus. And even though if you could sit down and explain to them, hey, actually the Freedom Caucus and this Kevin McCarthy thing, didn’t really get much and you know, here was the cost. And if they got anything at all, it might very little. At least they fought like people at a at a place where they’re I think their identities are and their sense of self is so tied into their their politics that even if they lose, as long as they get a chance to see somebody fighting for them, then at least they feel like there’s some meaning in that. And so I think I think the particular the way that things unfolded did not give people that.
Brian Beutler: Ryan, let me ask you, like just as a threshold matter, like the impulse to be uncompromising this way or to have like very high expectations, even if they’re sort of out of whack with things. But like, if the organized left wants more movement on those kinds of structural reforms, why why do they insist on calling themselves and their agenda socialists, which is like one of the least popular designations in America, right? Like at least the Freedom Caucus has the good sense to just say that they’re about freedom. Like. [laughter]
Ryan Grim: Well, I mean, I don’t think any of it was on purpose. It was all happenstance. You know, DSA has its own history that is completely independent of the current contemporary left. Bernie Sanders has his own history that is tied up in kind of some sectarian, you know, socialist politics in the in the early 1970s. That and he has just kind of said he just settled on a democratic socialism label to describe what in the 2020 campaign, you know, he gave a big, big speech saying he was an FDR Democrat. And so coming out of the 2016 campaign, when you saw DSA, you know, explode from a membership of whatever small, insignificant number, it was up to maybe over 100,000 members. I think partly because of the Democratic Socialists of America, and it was a broad umbrella organization that could kind of that could absorb a lot of the Democratic socialists. And so it wasn’t as if anybody sat around in a room and like white boarded it and was like, let’s call it the Democratic Socialists. The Democratic Socialists, just it just evolved that way. Whereas I think the right did whiteboard it like, what should we call this caucus? Well, we all love freedom. Yes, call it Freedom.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. I mean, the right is going through its own little thing right now where like all these, like young, influential right wingers, like every time I talk to other young right wing people in discords or in Slacks, I’m like, stay away from people who use the N-word, because we’re trying to, like, not let people know that’s what we what we really are. And like, I think that that’s a bad way to be like both racist and also, like trying to like, mislead people into, like, what you’re really all about. But like, I believe, Bernie, because I know his politics, that he is much more of like an FDR Democrat than than like a, a, socialist, as most Americans understand the term. And I know that his agenda, while more progressive than like the consensus Democratic Party platform, is not. Incompatible with like. Capitalism continuing to be the dominant economic system in the United States, right? There’s no incompatibility between single payer health care. Breaking up big banks and continued capitalism like the. The reach of those ideas, I feel like, is inhibited by insisting on calling them socialist when they’re when they’re not. Really. Which would strikes me as a different thing. Then like if there really was like some kind of secret pinko plan to, like, take over the government and abolish capital and blah blah, blah, and then you lie about that and you say that’s not really what you’re after. Like, there would be real honesty. I feel like in walking away from the, from like the socialism label in order to in order to move the issues forward.
Ryan Grim: I mean, look what Justice Democrats called itself. Justice Democrats like they did. They did not—
Brian Beutler: There you go. Like that’s—
Ryan Grim: But I think in the certainly in the 2018 race, which was the fulcrum that this has produced in order to get people to believe that you were the progressive candidate who’s going to take out, you know, whoever the incumbent is or going to win the open primary, as in the case of like Ilhan Omar, like, you know, the energy was around Bernie and Bernie was a democratic socialist. So I think people were just kind of adopting that that branding without and obviously there is no kind of material base for a socialist movement in America. Like, it just it just doesn’t exist. Like it’s a lifestyle identity at this point. Like what [laughter] to say that you’re a socialist. What what does that mean? Are you a member of a socialist party that is rooted in a working class base? You’ll no, that because that does not exist. What does it even mean to say you’re a quote unquote “socialist?”
Brian Beutler: Do either of you sense that there’s this sort of jaded or paranoid thing happening where if a champion like Bernie or AOC does something that appears at odds with the left or breaks faith with them in some way, that the assumption is that like they’ve sold out and there’s there’s like no room to puzzle over whether this might just be an above board disagreement over substance or strategy or whatever else.
Eric Levitz: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, I think that one thing that is pretty clear that there’s a little bit of reporting I did around Bernie’s campaign in 2016 and just generally, you can see it on social media and everything is that, you know, there’s perhaps one of the bigger distinctions between the typical supporter to the extent that there are typical supporters of Bernie Sanders and, you know, the most radical left Democratic candidates and the typical Democrat Democratic voter, which in reality there’s a lot of overlap there. A lot of normie Democrats love Bernie and The Squad. You know, I think it’s a decent amount of it is about different levels of social trust. Right. Like Bernie speaks to. Among many other constituencies. A very low trust, sort of paranoid conspiratorial element in American politics that feels alienated from both parties, that that thinks fundamentally experts in the establishment cannot be trusted. And, you know, it’s all about degrees, because, you know, I think a lot of us to an extent, yeah, absolutely. You know, you definitely shouldn’t trust on faith the political, financial or cultural establishment in the U.S. that they’re always going to have your best interests in mind or have a really clear understanding of reality. But, you know, I think this is taken to an extreme such that there’s a reason why there’s been, you know, at the edges, a bit of overlap between 2016 Bernie Sanders support and contemporary anti-vaxx ideology, etc.. So I think there’s just like a a broad tendency towards a paranoid interpretation of the world slash crossed with kind of a I guess I associate it as being a sort of Gen-X anti sellout ideology, but that obviously has its appeal on the younger generations as well of just kind of an anti-establishment, a iconoclastic ethos such that, you know, association with the powers that be is fundamentally discrediting. And so I think that these sentiments all exist. They have varying levels of justification. I think that fundamentally that attitude is just in, you know, really fundamental tension with being an effective member of Congress, like even stipulating that there are situations where forming a bloc and trying to really assert pressure from leadership is effective. I think there are situations where that is is an effective way of going about things. Nevertheless, like to be maximally effective as a member of Congress, you need to ingratiate yourself with the leadership that controls, you know, committee assignments and the purse strings, etc. Like you need to play an inside game if you’re a member of Congress. Like that’s where the inside game is played. And so any member of Congress that is going to be satisfying a political basis, desire for performances of iconoclasm and, you know, rebellion and that they’re just going to optimize solely for that function of performing one’s opposition and testifying and speaking one’s truth. There might be a role for for that just in terms of, you know, moving the Overton window, a debate or whatever. But in terms of actual legislative achievements attached to one’s name, it’s not a very good way to go about that. So I think there is just kind of an inherent tension between those things.
Brian Beutler: Is that like a big part of what’s driving left wing discontent with AOC or with Bernie or with just Democrats in general? Ryan? To me, that rings very true.
Ryan Grim: Yeah, I think so. People would be like, well, no, like, you can be a look, look at Matt Gaetz, although it’s interesting to see Marjorie Taylor Greene going through kind of the same kind of cycles and Black Mirror version as as AOC. You know, now she’s getting thrown out of the Freedom Caucus and getting called a sellout for, you know, working with McCarthy. And and she’s making similar arguments saying, look, I’m I mean, I’m in Congress now and I’m extracting major concessions for the things that, you know, you guys fought to get me here to fight for. So I think there’s some just inherent tension between those two things and that that can be a good thing and can be managed and can kind of drive things forward or it can be toxic and and make coalition work impossible. And I think that’s gone both ways. I think I think I know The Squad saw the way that they were being criticized so publicly, often for taking the same stance that Bernie Sanders was taking or even sometimes to the left of Bernie Sanders, that they were the ones taking the heat for it. And it just it just felt like kind of abject misogyny or abject sexism that like, why, you know, what about Bernie? But now Bernie is coming in for a lot of heat from those factions of the left as well. But it took a couple of years for that to develop.
Brian Beutler: Freddie called this in his piece, the fundamental moral corruption of of partisanship, and that it impels people to abandon principles when they come into conflict with the party line. And I mean, I think, Eric, you what you were saying is true like that definitely happens to take an example from this whole debate. If someone was like very worried and vocal about immigration under Trump and then became less so under Biden, I don’t think it has to follow that their new affect is a consequence of party loyalty or corruption or anything like that. Right. Like. Speaking just personally, I genuinely trust Joe Biden’s judgment and humanity much more than I trust Trump’s. So when I sort of like mentally order my concerns about the Biden presidency, like immigration doesn’t rate as high for me now as it did when Trump was president. Even though I’m like aware that, like many of the Trump era, atrocities continued through Biden’s term. And like, I feel like that’s actually a decent heuristic, like in the instance of the railroad workers threatening to strike. Like having some confidence in Biden to stick with it and come through with the solution proved to be the correct judgment. Even though people like jumped all over The Squad for or I guess for AOC in particular, for like voting for a bill that that precluded a strike. And like then in the most crude sense, I think people who call themselves progressives, like living in America under the two party system, like should be allowed to think for themselves about what issue positions might help the other party win and then strategically just mute those, right. Like if if you if you believe that, like setting the national agenda around immigration is a recipe for electing a lot of Republicans who are going to do all kinds of terrible things, then it’s not like fundamentally morally corrupt to try to. To try to, like, turn down the volume on it and talk about something else instead. Because like, like people will and do disagree endlessly about whether those judgments are correct. But I think it’s a mistake. And like I think I see the left making this mistake a lot to assume that someone who who, for instance, reduced the salience of immigration in their own politics did so because, like Nancy Pelosi or Hakeem Jeffries told them to, or because they think that they won’t ever get ahead in the Democratic Party if they if they make their main thing, how concerned they are about the border or whatever.
Eric Levitz: Yeah, I, I think I mean, I agree with that. I think that there’s plenty for the left to criticize and be dissatisfied with about Biden’s policies generally. I think that when he first came into office, he set like a ridiculously low cap on refugees, which is, you know, totally reactionary and under pressure. I think he raised it a bit. But there’s plenty to criticize in Biden’s immigration policy. And I, I think that people should I think there’s things to ask about his policy towards China, whether it’s a bit too belligerent, his disinterest in trying to really get back into the Iran deal, etc.. I will say with the border stuff, yeah, I don’t know. I think one, as you say, there is a pragmatic reason not to be, you know, really doing photo ops at the border all the time, given the way that that issue advantages Republicans. At the same time, I think just like fundamentally yeah, there’s overlap between the Biden and Trump policies. But you know, there’s a distinction between family separation, which was what was happening under Trump and under Biden. We had sort of the opposite sort of situation where, you know, because they were so eager to not have sort of kids in cages, to not have the spectacle of migrants attention. They released a bunch of kids without due diligence into the hands of guardians, who then I think use them, essentially rented them out as migrant labor, you know, and so we had a scandal about that. But but fundamentally, I just don’t think it’s, you know, 1 to 1 that the Biden administration is pursuing the same policies as Trump. And so there’s also in addition to the practical matter, there is just a substantive distinction between, you know, willfully trying to essentially torture families as a means of deterrence to come to the border and, you know, trying to manage the inherent challenges of a massive influx of migrant children, where your choices essentially are to either detain them and over staff facilities or to release them perhaps too quickly into the hands of people who could hurt them. Like there are some aspects of the border issue that are just inherently difficult. But anyway, perhaps beside the point. [laughter]
Brian Beutler: Let’s try to like concretize the stakes of all this. Like, why are we having a discussion about. Like marginal Democrats, leftist critics of the Democratic Party. When I think in Democratic politics, there’s like a fairly strong inclination to just ignore it or just like, write that whole faction of the population off. But it seems like to be a bit reductive about it. We know what happened in the 2000 election and then we saw in 2016 there was this very antagonistic relationship between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and she lost. In 2020, Sanders and Biden had a much better interpersonal relationship. But also, Biden made a pretty big show of trying to bring Bernie supporters into the room where he wrote his platform. And then Biden won. So, like, we know it’s at least theoretically possible that people who identify as radicals have the numbers to swing close elections. So what happens if Bernie Sanders supporters turn on Bernie Sanders? If if his endorsement loses its influence among mostly young people who are torn between like voting Dem voting Green and not voting at all. Like it does seem like you’re kind of playing with fire by just writing this all off as like an academic exercise among radicals who just, like, don’t really matter in the end.
Eric Levitz: Yeah, I mean, I think the stakes are two fold. One is what you were talking about just now there with the existence of the Cornel West candidacy, the fact that. Judging by current polling, 2024 is going to be a very close election and one that probably is going to pit Donald Trump against Joe Biden. And, you know, there are obviously pretty inherent stakes to keeping a you know, would be. You know, authoritarian leader essentially out of power. And it’s entirely possible that, you know, a third party leftist candidacy could eat at Biden’s margins in a way that with a bunch of other factors is decisive. And so that’s obviously really important to emphasize that the leftists have an interest in the Democratic Party winning power just for the sake of averting the election, the reelection of Donald Trump. And I think that there’s also a you know, but just from the perspective of leftists themselves, like, I just think it is an analytical error about why they’re not achieving the outcomes that they want to see in the world, and that if they do make that error and conclude that, you know, the fundamental problem here is that the Democratic Party is just hostile to progressive change institutionally. And if we get outside of that institution and form our own independent institution, we’re going to be escaping that obstacle and we’re going to be able to build the kind of, you know, populist progressive movement that’s going to really change things in this country. Like, I think that just rests on a bunch of analytical errors that are going to make the left less effective. And since I sympathize, you know, a great deal with their agenda, I don’t want to see them do that. And I think the real big error is also, you know, to an extent, especially for those who live in blue states, is just fixating on. The federal level where you’re expecting a group of four, you know, squad members and a broader progressive caucus to somehow through sheer will and principle, overwhelm the, you know, immense political obstacles between them and just exerting their will and then establishing their agenda. When you have in blue states a situation where Joe Manchin is not holding the balance of power in state legislatures, where you have often sort of overwhelmingly, at least ostensibly progressive lawmakers on Capitol Hill and there you’re seeing organized socialist movements winning major gains. We had in New York where I where I reside, the Build Public Renewables Act that recently went into law, which is an example of local state level socialists capitalizing on an incremental gain at the federal level, which is in the Inflation Reduction Act. Progressives won a provision which allows nonprofits and public entities, public utilities, to access these so-called tax credits, even though they have no tax liability to access them. And this is direct payments from the federal government. So if you’re a public utility at the state level that wants to build more solar energy through the IRA, you can access this public money to build them if you apply for it. And so what they did at the local level is a bunch of socialists won power and influenced legislation that is now going to create, you know, a public provider of electricity that is committed to decarbonization. That is going to be able to grab federal funds to build out these publicly managed and publicly owned solar and wind installations. And the public is going to get a share of the revenue from that because they own it and you’re going to get clean carbon energy. Well, you know, I don’t know if you’re a socialist and you’re not excited by the idea of the public sector, you know, owning and operating electricity. I don’t know. I don’t know what you’re in the game for. [laughter] And so I just think that, you know, there is I don’t think the socialists should be satisfied with cheering on, you know, incremental increases in, you know, ACA subsidies or whatever at the federal level. I agree that that’s not what you got into politics for. But I think in a lot of cases, there’s actually action at the local and state level where you can actually, with a relatively small group of mobilized people, affect change. And I just think that it’s, you know, to the extent that people take away the message that just fundamentally working through one of America’s two major parties is the problem, they’re just not going to achieve what they can achieve. And so I think that that’s the other stakes of the situation.
Brian Beutler: And I feel like what you’re saying maybe cuts both ways, right? Because like even in in much purplish states then you’re, like Minnesota was able to pass a ton of progressive legislation this past term, but they did it with like a one vote majority or something like that, like a tiny majority. And it’s like they’re I think you see a lot of things that if you’re like like a marginal progressive or socialist identifying person who reluctantly votes Democrat, like a reason to. Think that voting matters and staying engaged in mainstream politics matters at the same time. You can be like, well, if Minnesota can pass with with a one vote majority like a progressive revolution, then we should be able to expect the same thing in other states and nationally. And how that kind of thing is interpreted matters a lot because like, it’s not all blue states, right? Like if socialists in Wisconsin decide that Bernie sold them out. And so his endorsement of Joe Biden in 2024 carries significantly less weight than it did in 2020. Does Joe Biden still win Wisconsin? I don’t know. I mean, it’s a very close state and there’s a lot of left wing people in it.
Eric Levitz: Yeah. You know, I think the Minnesota example, you’re right now and I’ve written about this, I mean, it is pretty extraordinary what they were able to get out of a bare majority with a lot of people representing or at least a few members representing really rural areas that are historically somewhat conservative. But I think that the fundamental lesson there is just it’s really risky for your project to have really narrow congressional majorities because it all comes down to the whims of a small number of people. And maybe you get lucky in every single representative you have of a reddish or purple area. Happens to be a committed progressive who wants to maximize gains within, you know, they’re going to be pragmatic to an extent, but they’re going to be very open to taking chances. But also maybe they won’t be. And what you had with the 50 that we happen to draw at, some of which is a function of leadership decisions, but some of which really isn’t. I mean, Manchin is probably the only Democrat that was going to win West Virginia in 2018. You had representatives who didn’t want to do that. And maybe what’s worse is that they were kind of misaligned in terms of what they were willing to do. So Manchin actually had really significant appetite, appetite for raising taxes on the rich because there aren’t that many rich people in his state. I mean, there are, but not not that many. It’s a relatively low income state. And he is also a deficit hawk. And so he really cared more about that than about avoiding tax hikes on corporations and the rich. But you had then Kyrsten Sinema, who didn’t care that much about the deficit, but really hates raising taxes on private equity moguls for some bizarre reason [laughter] whereas you had Sherrod Brown right who, you know, he’s not the most left wing Democrat in the entire Congress or anything, but he’s representing a Trump state of Ohio and was, you know, onboard for pretty much all of Build Back Better. And so in a luckier situation, maybe you have a Sherrod Brown type in Arizona instead of Sinema, and maybe you win one more Senate race and you have the ability to do a lot more. But I think just the fundamental thing is that if you’re going to have a one vote majority, a lot is going to depend on just the weird personality quirks of your most marginal members. And in Minnesota, you know, we got lucky. And those those people were a lot more interested in progressive change than than Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema are.
Brian Beutler: Is there a way that you can imagine? That we’re not just doomed to this kind of quadrennial anxiety inducing thing of worrying about a repeat of the 2000 election. Like, is there a world in which the liberal establishment and the left can develop enough mutual trust to work in coalition for more than just one cycle? Because like, you know, the you can bracket all the Manchin Sinema stuff and the bad luck of the draw that you have there. And maybe things would have been more like Minnesota if you had if those two had been better. But like if I’d been in a coma since 2019 and woke up and you told me that Joe Biden’s president, we’re at full employment. Workers are striking now more than they have in decades because they have more power that real wages are up. The inequality, like the bottom, has kind of fallen out of it. The war in Afghanistan is over, like drone strikes are not happening. Like, I think that’s pretty good. Like, maybe even young people on the left will have developed the kind of fondness for Biden. I want to be fair. There are definitely left wing writers and critics who feel that way. But if you look at the polling and if you look at the bulk of the criticism. Out there coming from the left. Biden isn’t really crushing it with with any faction, really. But like young leftists, I think maybe in particular. So if not this if not the record Biden was able to amass despite having tiny majorities like is there is there a world in which we can like, maybe breathe easy about like a like a unity coalition that hangs together so that we’re not always like one bad luck election away from an authoritarian takeover?
Eric Levitz: Yeah, I think there are a couple of things to say there. I think, one, relations between Biden and the progressive left generally, the you know, especially the commentariat that sort of the most visible elements, it does seem to me to be better, significantly better than the relationship between first term Obama White House and the left. You know, you had in 2011 Bernie Sanders calling for a primary to Obama. He’s obviously not doing that with Biden. And AOC also, you know, has endorsed him. You know. So I think that that those policy gains and that attempt to sort of bring progressives in in terms of the transition team that has paid some dividends. I do think that that the way that the the radical left threatens Democratic candidates in general elections is not solely by mobilizing people who are radically to the left. Ideologically of the Democratic Party because that that group is just not that that large. If you look at, I think, recent polling of Cornel West supporters, a significant subset of them, are not more ideologically left wing than Biden. It’s just distrust in the establishment generally that’s not totally ideologically coherent and or just not liking Joe Biden. And so I think part of the problem is that fundamentally, just as a person, as a human being, as a, you know, charismatic figure. Joe Biden just has very little appeal to young people, whereas Obama well, ideologically, perhaps in some respects, less congenial to the left, was, you know, a historic political talent, incredibly charismatic, incredibly cool, exciting to to to see as your president and, you know, relatively youthful. And so that allowed, you know, significant popularity with younger voters. I think here you have the combination that those who are ideologically hostile to Biden or disappointed in him are able to speak to a broader population of people who just aren’t excited by him and who just think that he’s too damn old and and or who just sort of have kind of. Iconoclastic personal identities where they don’t feel like it’s adequately expresses kind of the uniqueness of their self to vote for one of the two major parties rather than sort of an alternative or whatever, so that you can reach to a group of people who aren’t totally, you know, reading Jacobin and the Monthly Review every week, you know, who are like really ideologically committed socialists, but who are just kind of disaffected. That’s, I think, where the threat that the left poses is. And I think that just Biden’s personal vulnerabilities is making matters worse there. Fundamentally, though, in terms of just being able to rest easy during election time, you know, as long as we have a situation where the Republican Party is led by reactionary authoritarians and we have an Electoral College, which maybe Dobbs has changed it slightly, but it seems like probably is still biased towards Republicans such that Democrats don’t just need to beat them, but need to beat them by two or three or 4% in order to win the White House. In that situation, you know, so many little things could cost the presidency. I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to not sweat about the possibility of a small splinter of progressives being discontented and sitting it out. We’re going to have to worry about everything because, you know, that’s like 10,000 votes away from the end of the republic or whatever.
Brian Beutler: [laughter] On that happy note, I’m going to give you the last word. You can preorder The Squad. Ryan’s book now, it comes out in December. Ryan, Eric, thanks for giving us so much of your time this week.
Eric Levitz: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Ryan Grim: Thank you so much Brian.
Brian Beutler: Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez, our associate producer, is Emma Illick-Frank, and our guest associate producer is Rebecca Rottenberg. Our intern is Naomi Birenbaum. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.