The afterworld haunts the latest print issue of Jacobin magazine. The theme is “The Left in Purgatory,” and the cover illustration shows Sen. Bernie Sanders and Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on a couch in some sort of waiting room. Jacobin back issues are laid out on a table before them. In the background, a TV weatherman forecasts clouds—day after day after day of overcast skies; it is not a bright springtime for the Brooklyn left.
The issue is devoted to figuring out why leftists are undergoing a process of “dealignment” from the workers they speak for, as publisher Bhaskar Sunkara puts it in an opening column. To anyone willing to look out the window and honestly describe what he sees, the answer is obvious: Aggressive cultural liberalism doesn’t answer—but exacerbates—the crises facing wage earners. Leftists’ boutique identitarian concerns don’t concern the underclass. And the culture clashes between the two camps reflect material conflicts.
Some of the featured writers seem to appreciate this. Sunkara warns that “it is increasingly hard to argue that the fault for the left’s predicament lies with everyone else but ourselves.” And yet this acknowledgment of reality, when it happens, happens in the most elliptical, cryptic fashion possible. It’s like pulling teeth.
An interview with David Shor, the Obama data whiz who has been warning Democrats of a looming electoral disaster, is instructive. “Working-class people,” he tells Jacobin, “aren’t reactionaries. But they are much more moderate on social issues.” Take any of the day’s febrile cultural issues—biological men competing in women’s sports or gender ideology in pre-K—and what Shor calls the “moderate” position is framed as reactionary by the Jacobin left. This alienates lots of ordinary Americans (and Europeans). Shor knows this. So does Sunkara. But they have to break the news to readers gently. Very gently.
If only the left would ease up on its hard-line cultural commitments, Shor says, Democrats could begin to stanch the flow of low-income voters to the GOP. They might even reverse “education polarization” by emphasizing bread-and-butter policies like a jobs guarantee. Except—and this is where his analysis gets really interesting—a jobs guarantee is less popular with upscale Democratic voters, i.e., the party base.
Put another way, cultural “dealignment” goes hand-in-hand with material “dealignment.”
The most fascinating aspect of the interview is just how out of touch the Jacobin interviewer appears to be. At one point, Shor points to left movements in Europe in the last century, noting that the most successful of them imposed strict ideological discipline on cadres, to keep the focus relentlessly on “the economic issues that people cared about.” The American left could learn from this tradition of European “popularism.” The Jacobin interviewer doesn’t buy it: “It would seem Donald Trump is the archetype of the anti-popularist. He didn’t tailor his rhetoric to a worldview that resonated with people.”
However, as Shor points out, Trump’s core message—protecting entitlements, limiting immigration—enjoyed support “among a very large fraction of the population.” Hillary Clinton’s immigration stance, by contrast, “was probably more liberal than 90 percent of [the population].” So if the left is “dealigning” from workers, it’s worth asking whom leftists are aligning with: “My guess is that 30 percent of the people who worked on Romney’s campaign in 2012 identify as Democrats now.”
A similar message is at the heart of Natalie Shure’s essay, headlined “The End of the AOC Honeymoon.” Its several thousand words, with numerous digressions, caveats, and nuances, make a relatively pedestrian point: that The Squad has failed to fill the vacuum left by Sanders’s 2016 campaign because its members’ obsession with race, sexuality, and gender is insufficiently universal and doesn’t garner support beyond “downwardly mobile professionals” in blue cities. But again, Shure has to phrase this gently, ever so gently; not for Jacobin is the tradition of pitiless Marxist critique.
Loren Balhorn’s essay on the decline of Germany’s Die Linke (Left) party presents a parallel case study from across the Atlantic. It’s a learned, deeply reported piece, but to finally get the upshot, you have to read between the lines. Why is Die Linke tumbling in the polls after its meteoric rise in the early 2000s? Well, you see, the old-school leftist cadres are dying off, and taking their place are younger ones more interested in . . . climate issues, open borders, and goofy neo-electroclash bands like The Dead Crack Whores in the Trunk (which played at the party’s annual festival in Berlin this year).
Then there is the essay by Chris Maisano, which also tries to address the same education-polarization problem identified by Shor (the young left is highly educated and culturally ultra-liberal, the working class it seeks to mobilize is neither). Where the others look out the window and report what they see in cryptic, read-between-the-lines terms, Maisano just refuses to look out the window at all. His bald conclusion is that there is, in fact, “no contradiction between the interests of the young and well-educated and a working-class-oriented left.” Ah, OK then.
A number of leftist writers, including some associated with Jacobin, have reproached Compact’s founding statement for treating cultural liberalism as an obstacle, rather than a natural complement, to a social-democratic political economy. “Stop Trying to Make Right-Wing Social Democracy Happen” was how one such writer put it. In these writers’ telling, liberalism’s true promise—to protect and expand the individual’s sphere of choice-making—can’t be realized in a market economy, where he is subjugated by private tyrants of various sorts, not least employers.
Market society as a site of pervasive private tyranny—you will hear no objection from me on that count. But as a venerable leftist tradition has long insisted, cultural liberalism is perfectly compatible with and is, indeed, the handmaiden of capital. This same market logic rejects political limits on the accumulation of capital, considers borders of all kinds bad for business, and finds in endless identitarian self-expression and kaleidoscopic lifestyles the characteristics of a fertile consumer base and, therefore, the ideal cultural form of society.
But don’t take it from me. To see the internal contradictions inherent in a left deeply committed to elite liberalism, you need only glance at the purgative agonies splashed across Jacobin’s pages. The left won’t get out anytime soon.