In the wake of Bernie’s defeat in the 2020 democratic candidate elections, an insidious viewpoint has emerged in some progressive circles explaining the cause of his defeat. This viewpoint advances a socially reactionary worldview explaining Bernie’s defeat. Namely, that idea that the left lost because it opposes socially conservative values supposedly adhered to by the vast majority of the working class; rather than sabotage by the establishment combined with his own inability to challenge it.
This viewpoint is championed by Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey in their article “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The Collapse of the Sanders Campaign and the ‘Fusionist’ Left”, published in the right-leaning American Affairs Magazine. To Nagle and Tracey, the establishment and the media was supposedly open to more progressive ideas in contrast to 2016.
In this distorted reality, Bernie lost not because of establishment sabotage. Instead it was sabotage from a “fusionist” far left activist base that, influenced by Liberalism, and “Anti-American Communism”, pushed Bernie so far to the left. They convinced him to focus on smearing Russia as desired by liberal democrats, and forced Bernie to adapt “excessively woke” policies alienating him from a working class supposedly prone to social conservatism.
This fictional la-la land dreamt up by Tracey and Nagle falls apart upon critical assessment. During the Iowa Caucus, the democratic establishment used an app to derail the Caucus and ensure Buttigieg comes out on top. Throughout the “Super Tuesdays”, the democrats carried out rampant voter suppression to prop up Biden, even going as far to keep voting open in places when the virus hit despite the cost in human lives that would entail. Meanwhile, the mainstream media continued their attacks on Sanders in the debates. In reality the sociopolitical establishment is opposed to progressive ideas just as ever. This was clearly shown when some establishment figures tried to throw a spiteful victory party when Bernie threw in the towel.
At the same time Bernie ceded ground to the democrats at every turn, rather than stand up to these attacks and radicalize his campaign. He refused to condemn his “good friend Joe” even as news came out that he was a rapist. In the real world, the continued opposition of the establishment combined with Sanders’ naive commitment to reforming the establishment bears the lion’s share of blame for his defeat.
As for supposed “Anti-American Communist” interference pushing Sanders to the far left, it should be known that in reality, elements of the left that could be described as such had little time for Bernie Sanders in both 2016 and 2020. They accused Sanders of instead perpetuating further imperialism and being too soft on the establishment. With Sanders’ capitulation in both election cycles, such allegations were extremely prophetic.
Regarding Bernie’s stance on Russia, most personalities on Left have warned Bernie not to buy into allegations of Russia interference in the 2016 elections. Bernie’s support for Russiagate despite their warnings is more of a testament to his willingness to cater to the establishment. He lacks commitment to a genuine revolution, rather than being the victim of any manipulation by the far left.
Social Reactionarism is not a Healthy Critique of Liberal Performativism
Now, regarding the allegations of “excessive wokeness” levied at Bernie and the left. On the surface, neoliberal performative wokeness and the weaponization of identity politics as an alternative to class politics or genuinely intersectional politics is an issue the left should confront. Neo-liberal attempts to weaponize performative wokeness is demonstrated by their support for measures supposedly uplifting racial minorities and LGBTQIA2S+, but doing little to actually address systemic issues plaguing marginalized communities.
An example of this would be liberals calling for more affirmative action programs, or offering “representation” as a solution to more systemic problems that can’t be solved with representation. Essentially, the idea that a black dominated police force that wears body cameras all the time would be less prone to police brutality even through that has been proven false.
Weaponized identity politics was deployed in the 2016 election, when the justification for propping up Hillary Clinton as the democratic nominee was that regardless of her hawkishness and fealty to neoliberal politics, she was a woman and “deserved” to breach the glass ceiling.
Rather than tackle genuine instances of weaponized wokeness however, Nagle and Tracey instead call on the left to abandon important issues. These need to not be discussed simply because the “socially conservative working” class don’t care about these “fusionist” issues, even if the issues championed by the left are genuinely relevant. They believe Bernie lost supposedly because he championed these policies advanced by the left when he should have focused solely on minimum wage and healthcare. These policies include supporting a Green New Deal, and demanding the abolition of ICE.
To view the Green New Deal as an irrelevant wedge issue is rather a reach is foolish. Especially when considering the scientific fact that not getting our act together in a decade regarding climate change, will have catastrophic consequences for the planet. ICE has detained immigrants fleeing the results of imperialistic US foreign policy in Latin America. They have been placed in deplorable concentration camp style conditions that have had killed many detainees in the past.
Nagle and Tracey, rather than launch a legitimate critique of how liberals and corporations co-opt social justice discourse and representation discourse to gain power, seem to label “performative wokeness” as any policy they deem to be “irrelevant to American politics”. Even through in reality, policies such as the Green New Deal are needed more than ever given the current state of the world today.
How reality disproves the tenants of Social Reactionarism
Recent events have all but disproven Nagle and Tracey’s viewpoints about the working class being culturally conservative. In the wake of the George Floyd protests that Tracey loves to slander, bus drivers have refused to transport arrested protestors to prison or transport cops to arrest protestors, and labor associations are considering barring police unions from being represented in their associations. Americans overwhelmingly support the George Floyd protests and many Americans even think burning down a police station is justified.
These instances of working class solidarity demonstrate that the portrayal by social reactionaries of the working class as wholly of culturally reactionary individuals is wrong. The idea that they can only be reached out through culturally reactionary policies, is just as problematic as the demonization of the working class as a wholly reactionary mass that should be shunned at all costs.
In addition, while neo-liberal centrists may use performative wokeness and superficial reforms promoting representation without implementing actual policies to help minorities to maintain legitimacy, they are perfectly willing to reverse course if politically expedient.
While the democrats and their supporters in Hollywood expressed rhetorical support for #MeToo, it did not translate into genuine support given how the democrats are perfectly willing to sweep Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden, aside despite more and more evidence corroborating her story.
Likewise, democrats may put up a good show in response to the George Floyd protests, the democrats are already preparing policies in opposition to the demands of said protestors. Joe Biden, for instance, has vowed to oppose any efforts to defund the police and also believes that officers should be trained to shoot people in the legs. Bernie Sanders for his part, has echoed the democratic establishment’s opposition to weakening the police, believing that the police can be reformed to be more humane if more funding is injected.
The Canadian Connection: Social Reactionarism in the NDP
Note: The following is based primarily on my own observations of behavior within the NDP, particularly during the 2019 Ontario NDP convention, as well as on NDP-affliated facebook pages
Michael Tracey and Angela Nagle are not the only ones expressing such views, other proponents of socially reactionary ideas about a need for a “reactionary” progressive movement exist in the USA and around the world. In Britain these groups primarily gather in Blue Labour and have made transphobia a key social platform; with their website stating that transgender acknowledgement constitutes “psudoscience”.
In Canada, similar tendencies exist within the NDP as well. While these tendencies have yet to gather in a political body unlike Blue Labour, they manifest in opposition to any effort taken to move the NDP to the left because a left-leaning NDP would be “unappealing” to ordinary Canadians.
The behavior of the social reactionaries in the NDP was on display during the 2019 Ontario NDP convention. During the convention, various reactionary measures were experimented with by the NDP. This included a proposed resolution that would have criminalized people with mental health issues in allowing for the police to have more power in dealing with them, said measure being defended by elements of the convention. In addition, a woman in the convention tried to hijack an anti-racism resolution by calling for the implementation of a “reverse racism” clause within the resolution. Thankfully, both attempts to implement extremely reactionary policies were soundly defeated through the mobilization of delegates and the left leaning elements of the NDP.
Social reactionaries have also defended pro-Israel policies taken by the NDP establishment, such as the silencing of the supporters of a pro-BDS resolution in the very same convention. They also silenced pro-Palestinian activists on the basis that Canadians “don’t care” for the Israel-Palestine issue. They went as far to condemn supporters of a pro-Palestinian foreign policy as engaging in performative identity politics, by pushing forward policies that supposedly do nothing for Canadians or even supposedly for Palestinians (in their eyes). They have accused the Socialist Caucus of “obsessing” over Palestine whenever they show up on the convention.
In reality, the allegations of the Canadian social reactionaries about the proponents of the BDS movement being out of touch with ordinary Canadians can’t be further from the truth. According to a recent survey by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, nearly three-quarters of Canadians surveyed think Canada should oppose Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. Earlier surveys by CJPME in 2017 show that a large number of Canadians think that sanctions and boycotts are reasonable measures to defend Palestinian rights.
As for the effectiveness of the boycotts themselves, which social reactionaries dismiss in favor of solutions at the “federal level”, historical precedence has shown that boycotts directed at South African Apartheid in the past has resulted in a significant weakening their economy.
Looking at the historical precedence, if BDS policies were enacted at the local level by various provincial governments, rather than being an issue of performative grandstanding that should be left at the federal level for it to have any effect, can have a significant impact in combatting Israeli apartheid.
Centrists that have attempted to move the NDP to the right in the past have been supportive of socially reactionary rhetoric and beliefs. Recently, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh received a suspension from Parliament for a day because he called a Bloc Quebecois MP racist for refusing to support his motion targeting systemic racism in the RCMP. The motion proposed by Singh asked for a review of the law enforcement body’s budget and release of use-of-force reports, and exclipitly called out the RCMP for causing the deaths of “several indigenous people”.
Joining in the chorus of voices criticizing Singh for that statement is Thomas Mulcair, the former leader of the NDP, who is leader that did the most to move the NDP to the right. In an interview. Mulcair claimed that Singh calling someone a racist is the “atomic weapon of all insults” and asked him to immediately apologize. Mulcair’s comments are very revealing in regard to what centrists really think of socially progressive policies. Centrists are perfectly happy to feign opposition to socially reactionary or xenophobic behavior, only to defend xenophobic rhetoric and policies when it is politically convenient.
To the future
Ultimately when put under further scrutiny, social reactionaries such as Angela Nagle, Michael Tracey and the NDP establishment do not provide an adequate explanation for the left’s defeats. Social reactionaries derive their existence from seeking to appeal to an image of the working class in their heads while opposing performative wokeism and neoliberal co-option of identity politics. Yet, their definition of what constitutes “identity politics” is so broad and vague that it encompasses policies they believe the majority of the population to not care about. Even if the result of their worldviews will see crucial topics such as eco-socialism and anti-imperialism swept under the rug because they don’t “appeal” to the working class.
In advancing this view, social reactionaries do not understand how people’s attitudes are not stagnant or fixed in place, instead of being willing to embrace change. The viewpoints of social reactionaries on the working class as only appeased through socially reactionary policies has been disproven time and time again. This is clear upon closer observation of recent sociopolitical trends in the United States and Canada, regarding support for the George Floyd protests and opposition to Israeli apartheid respectively.
The left should, rather than embrace these toxic politics, reject these politics entirely, choosing instead to build links and bridges between the working class and the socially marginalized. They must resist the performative rhetoric of neo-liberals seeking to co-opt the socially marginalized for their own purposes. It is only through the building of mass solidarity that we can bring about the transformative change the world needs, not throwing people under the bus as long as it appears politically convenient.