Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been growing by leaps and bounds. Of course, that is from a microscopic base, relative to national politics ‘in the large.’ And it is still small in that sense, but the volume and energy of activism is moving in the right direction. At the same time, our small size commends the exploitation of alliances with those who are not on the same page as DSA on every issue.
More recruits means more political naifs. That’s who I want to talk about. They are full of moral conviction, and I’m not questioning their intentions. Their understanding of politics seems to consist of having a set of positions, perhaps backed up by extensive study or perhaps picked up casually. So neither am I questioning their intellectual faculties.
Given this set of views, their idea of politics seems to consist of berating anyone with contrary views. Sometimes the attack is justified on the grounds of some kind of moral deficiency on the part of the object of the attack. Sometimes there is an assumption that the target is motivated by corruption – an anti-social financial interest. Without doubt, this is often the case. People who depart from the consensus views of DSA may indeed not have the best of intentions.
But there are also people who are potential allies, if not on every item in the DSA platform. This is where logic seems to depart quite a few people. People who disagree may have open minds and be susceptible to persuasion. Politics is about 1) getting people to like you enough to be willing to listen to what you have to say; 2) using techniques of persuasion that include but are not limited to moral appeals; 3) accepting if only for the time being the achievement of partial agreements with some people that provide a basis for practical collaboration.
I can tell you from old experience that brow-beating and the exploitation of social sanctions works, but only in the short term. As Joan Robinson wrote,
“He who’s convinced against his will/
Is of the same opinion still.”
Then there are those whose own views are founded on deep intellectual work. They may not be persuadable, but they may still be allies on certain issues. It would be politically idiotic to shun them and reject their practical assistance, even if limited.
This brings me to the Liz Bruenig Twittergasm. Twitter exacerbates the worst aspects of “call-out” politics. Quite a few people have so little political sense that they think insulting others constitutes a constructive contribution to progressive politics. Just search for “Liz Bruenig” on Twitter (she has shut down her own account). It can certainly be emotionally satisfying, but the political impact is more negative than positive.
Please don’t bother regaling me with the moral case for reproductive rights. I’m as pro-choice as anyone. At the same time, there is a substantial body of political opinion that seeks to meld a pro-life perspective with the remainder of progressive views. For shorthand, we could call them Catholics. Yes I know there are pro-choice Catholics. I’m not talking about them.
The desire to preclude any working relationship with progressive, pro-life Catholics is not smart. That doesn’t mean tempering DSA’s commitment to choice. It means taking advantage of alliances where they are available.
Nobody is going to change the philosophy of LB or, say, “the nuns on the bus,” or Pope Francis. They have thought about the moral implications of their stance at least as much as you have. It remains the case that for the U.S., especially for a small socialist formation like DSA, a good working relationship with progressive Catholics should be a strategic objective.
It’s funny that this shunning campaign has sometimes been a stance of the leftier left. We could note that there is no precedent for any successful revolution rejecting alliances. There is a precedent for entryists using such divisive appeals to siphon off supporters to their own sectarian outfits.
In the past I haven’t always held my tongue on Twitter when it comes to the Bernie v. Hillary wars. But these days when I see something vicious from either side, a little light goes on over my head and I practice restraint.
The inescapable fact is that both sides need each other. Trumpists deserve every sort of excoriation that the mind can devise, but the rules for dialog between the left and the moderates within the Democratic Party need to be different. Some on each side seek to purge the other side, but this can only benefit the Right.
There are entryists within DSA who uphold certain left stances for the sake of driving the organization into the swamp of third party or no-party politics. Many years ago, I could have been one of these people, so I understand the mindset. I also know where it leads – to a big fat nowhere.
For DSA to keep growing, it needs to be inviting, not exclusionary, like some high school clique. Moral condemnation should be reserved for the Right, constructive and even bracing criticism for moderates.