The Cult of 'Personality Leftists'

Their complaint isn't ideological. It's personal. And they're losing.

This week saw a salvo of social-media attacks on Beto O’Rourke by a prickly posse of writers associated with Bernie Sanders. O’Rourke, as you’ll recall, is the Texas congressman who nearly knocked off US Senator Ted Cruz. He mounted a spirited effort and has great promise, perhaps even as a presidential nominee. His attackers claim that he’s in league with Big Oil and other fossil-fuel concerns, noting that individuals who work for oil firms contributed at least $1,000 to his campaign.

I don’t want to get into how idiotic this is, but the uproar was enough to get the attention of Bill Kristol, who is, you know, so not a liberal. Kristol is the founding editor of The Weekly Standard and one of the architects of the disastrous Iraq War. He’s now on the outside of the Republican Party looking in thanks to Donald Trump, and he actually wants Democrats to succeed in two years. So he said this:

Here’s the reason I don’t want to get into how idiotic these attacks were: They were not about ideas or ideology, issues or policies. They were about smearing a candidate who hasn’t even announced yet his interest in the presidency (though he met with Barack Obama after conceding defeat last month, thus sparking fear, I presume, among Sanders supporters who want to clear the field of the senator’s rivals).

And isn’t that interesting that these attacks are about personality and not first principles? Yes, you could say, and Sanders supporters are saying, that taking money from people who work in the oil industry means you’re in hock to Big Oil. But that could be said of any candidate, including Bernie Sanders. Employers don’t control whom their employees favor politically. (That’s the nut of this, the difference between corporations donating money to candidates and employees who must declare what industry they work in. That’s why this smear can be applied to anyone any time. I’m in the media, so you can add up all the media people who gave at least $1000 to any candidate and say that that candidate is in hock to Big Media. So. Very. Idiotic.)

Because these salvos were about personality and not about values and first principles, it’s easy to wonder if the Democratic Party has moved sufficiently enough to the left since 2016 that Sanders’ supporters (though I presume not Sanders himself) must scream that much louder to get attention. After all, what can you do when you’re no longer the only one pounding for Medicare for All, etc.? You pound all the harder.

I think that’s more interesting to talk about than to complain about the ideological warfare of 2016 happening all over again. It bears repeating that the Democratic Party is a liberal party and as such, there are going to be fierce factional disagreements over what to do and how to do it. That’s a given. The fact that Bill Kristol, someone I presume is not in touch with intra-party tensions, is furrowing his brow is not a bad omen. It’s an indicator of the party’s vitality. It’s a myth that Democrats kill themselves. What they do do, are doing, is sort things out, as parties must.

Bear in mind that these salvos were partly an expression of a kind of leftist who can’t quite see, or won’t see, that the party has moved dramatically leftward since 2004. They do not, for whatever reason, recognize the fantastic diversity—of race, gender, ideology and other things—that now characterizes the party, and because they do not recognize what the party has become, they continue to assail it for what it was.

And in not recognizing what the party has become, these “personality leftists,” let’s call them, are going to find themselves increasingly marginalized over time. As Michael Berube wrote last summer, the market for “liberal contrarianism” isn’t what it used to be. Liberals are no longer vested in the views of Andrew Sullivan, from the right, or Thomas Frank, from the left, to name just two elite gadflies. And that’s because, I contend, the two main historical branches of liberalism—one political and one economic—are coming back together after a long period in which liberals, though they defended the New Deal, stressed rights over civic duty and the common good.

I think that changed over the last decade. That’s why I see this moment, in which the country is actually seeing actual fascism expressed by the formerly conservative Republican Party, as a moment of great political clarity, in which Democrats, in being principled liberals, are the defenders of democracy and champions of the common good. These “personality leftists” had their moment. That moment is gone.

—John Stoehr


Break through the noise!

American politics is simpler and more complex than the media suggests. That’s why there’s the Editorial Board. For $5 a month or $55 for the year, you can break through the noise to see what’s really going on, and why. I know you’ll love it!—JS

Give a gift subscription