To Win in November, Let’s Address the Razor’s Edge of Wokeness

“Simplicity rarely loses to complexity in battles in the public square” – Jeffrey Toobin (Painting: Carlos Estévez)

Childish Republicans love to salt their food with liberal tears. With Trump at the helm, it’s no surprise that the modern GOP drummed up support for its base in 2016 with messages like “Hillary Sucks…But not like Monica!” Growing up, I believed that taking pleasure in a decent person’s pain was something only kids and ruthless dictators did, but here we are. 

Progressives do not generally snipe at one another with malice. Recently, however, the left has had a bad habit of eating their own. For example, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders represent similar values and platforms. But during the primaries, the media (and the candidates’ followers) spent too much energy igniting mutual suspicion and animosity. And the divide is even more stark between the Democrats’ moderate and liberal wings, with moderates fearing a Squad takeover and liberals fearing a GOP-light administration.

There are valid debates—don’t get me wrong—but now that our two-party system has chosen a Democratic ticket, we need to take a page from the Republican playbook: we need to compromise and unite. Division and constant infighting is only strengthening the GOP.

I get it: Kamala Harris was a punitive prosecutor and made some bad calls. While she’s a fierce debater, she also has a difficult time expressing exactly what she stands for in interviews.  She wasn’t my first choice, but I am going to set my criticisms aside in service to the larger fight in November. My favorite candidates, Warren and Sanders, have urged everyone to do.

So why is the modern left obsessed with these purity tests? A friend reminded me recently that “an apostate is worse than a heretic.” We’re more likely to judge those who are nearly in our camp than those outside of it. We see this playing out in cancel culture, which stems from the zealous application of progressive values such as anti-racism, anti-misogyny, and anti-homophobia. “Canceling someone” can be justified for the worst among us, but it can also leech energy from more important fights. 

We can’t continually call out Trump’s racism, lying, and corruption—much less, unite folks behind a set of progressive ideals and policies—when we’re too busy bemoaning Joe Biden for being a gaffe-prone centrist. There’s only so much gas in our tank of indignation. While we should hold our own in check, but we also need to come together in November to close this devastating chapter of American history. 

As journalists such as Matt Taibbi have pointed out, the left’s Puritanical obsession with enforcing what’s “woke” is antithetical to its traditional values of open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance. Furthermore, ruining lives has become a spectator sport. The ultra-woke air grievances on Twitter and some folks such as David Shor have lost their jobs. Many of these discussions should have been more civilly resolved. Walking the new razor’s edge of progressivism has alienated people. It’s also threatening to shrink our coalition. The perfect cannot become the enemy of the good.

One major problem is that there’s no clear path to redemption once someone fucks up. It’s crucial to create space for people to admit when they’re wrong and to act like adults. When we have a coworker, friend, or family member who says something offensive, there needs to be a loving way to bring them back into the tribe without shame or recrimination. 

I’m reminded of Arthur Miller’s iconic play The Crucible, an allegory of McCarthyism and the communist witch-hunt of the 1950s. In defense of his life and good name, John Proctor cries out, “We are what we always were in Salem, but now the crazy little children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law.” The keys to the kingdom are Twitter campaigns calling for people’s heads; common vengeance is the online mob.

Take Christian Cooper: the Black Harvard grad and bird-watcher, who had the cops called on him by Amy Cooper (no relation). He did not press charges and did not think that she should lose her job. Even though I had delighted in the public destruction of her life—she is, after all, a liar and a racist who weaponized her status as a white woman—I admire Christian Cooper’s forgiveness and grace in handling this incident. 

In short, there must be a better way than the endless shame and condemnation. Nobody should be remembered for the worst thing they have even done. And within our progressive coalition—as large and multivariate as it is—cancel culture plays right into the hands of Republicans. While most of us mean well, constantly throwing mud at fellow lefties for being insufficiently woke or radically out-of-touch takes the spotlight off of our real opponents. 

As a general rule, the GOP respects what Reagan called the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. When they do, it’s hardly ever for egregious racism, misogyny, or destroying the environment. It’s typically for being a RINO (a Republican in Name Only), a person who does not vote with the party on a specific issue. They enforce their own unity through shaming their fellows for one sin only: that of non-compliance with the GOP’s agenda.

Although the GOP’s leadership consists of mainly white men, they have welcomed an array of interests under that red umbrella: Tea Partiers, anti-government gun enthusiasts, tax-cut junkies, QAnon conspiracy theorists, evangelical Christians, anti-mask “patriots,” and white nationalists all tend to be pro-MAGA. They are skilled at circling their wagons, playing offense, and doing what it takes to maintain power, even though they comprise a minority party. 

A majority of Americans actually hold left-leaning views on all of the major issues, but we still struggle to garner the votes we need. With such a diverse array of agendas (pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-Medicare-For-All, anti-racism) and demographics (men, women, LGBTQ+, BIPOC), it’s no wonder we struggle to achieve a consensus. Also, voter suppression and gerrymandering have disproportionately affected the left, especially people of color.

To win the White House and a Senate majority, we need to lift a page from the Republican playbook and create an alliance among these diverse factions of our party. Part of the problem is that progressives do not have a simple overarching message, a list of non-negotiable values that unite us. 

The closest I’ve seen to this list was detailed in Robert Reich’s exceptional book The Common Good. He describes this value system as “the norms we voluntarily abide by, and the ideals we seek to achieve.”

He elegantly summarizes a foundation for what a majority of Americans already believe. I’ve changed the formatting for emphasis:

“The good we have had in common has been a commitment to: 

  • Respecting the rule of law, including its intent and spirit
  • Protecting our democratic institutions
  • Discovering and spreading the truth
  • Being open to change and tolerant of our differences
  • Ensuring equal political rights and equal opportunity
  • Participating in our civic life together
  • Sacrificing for that life together”

This list isn’t perfect or complete, but it’s a solid start in rebuilding the civic trust within this country. We can’t forget that a majority of Americans are good people and are on our side. And the first step to combatting wealth inequality and fear-based scourges such as racism is to reclaim the presidency and Congress. Only then can we transform the country in the image of our shared ideals. Progressivism is a big messy umbrella of interests—and we have to embrace that to win in November.

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