Eric Alterman wrote a thought provoking article at Democracy, Why Liberals Need Radicals — and Vice Versa. He has divided the political left into the liberals and the radicals. Basically, they are the pragmatists and the idealists. It’s a good breakdown. And he noted that the liberals need the radicals to show them what they are fighting for. And the radicals need the liberals in order to get things done, because this is America and there ain’t gonna be no stinking revolution. I’m with him on this.
What’s more interesting is an implicit point in his article: there isn’t much remaining of radicalism on the left of the political spectrum. For example, I generally find myself on the left left edge of American politics — and often I find myself quite far to the left of that “respectable” edge. Yet I am incredibly practical. I think that income inequality is the biggest problem that we face. The solutions I propose, however, are things like increased estate taxes and a higher inflation target. These have traditionally been extremely mainstream ideas. It does not speak well of our country that they are considered radical.
But the reason that such vanilla economic remedies have come to be seen as “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!” is because the conservative radicals, the ideologues, have been so successful at moving the playing field. That isn’t just due to their brilliance, although I will give them high marks on that front. Whereas liberal radicals have to push ideas mostly through force of will, conservatives get billions of dollars to develop and push their ideas. But I still maintain that the biggest reason that conservatives have recently been so successful has nothing to do with leftist radicals. It is rather that conservatives managed to take over the Democratic Party. They had a brilliant idea: they could redefine liberalism as social liberalism. And hence you get people like Clinton (pick one), Obama, and Andrew Cuomo.
Alterman went wrong, I think, in trying to distinguish between constructive radicalism and destructive radicalism. According to him, constructive radicalism is when people on the left start a conversation that moves liberals in a positive direction. And as an example of this, he mentioned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s excellent article, The Case for Reparations. Destructive radicalism is embodied in Ralph Nader’s failed 2000 presidential run. But is this distinction really valid a priori? Isn’t Alterman just looking at the negative effects of Nader’s campaign and saying it was an example of destructive radicalism?
I assume that Nader’s campaign was always meant to push Gore more to the left. I find it hard to believe that Nader thought he might win the election, along with a Congress of like minded people. I think what Alterman is getting at is found even more clearly in his second example, “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement directed against Israel.” Again, his argument is basically that it can’t work. But I have never seen the BDS movement as anything but a way to get a message out and to highlight the apartheid nature of the situation in Israel-Palestine. I don’t know how I feel about the issue, but it is clear that Alterman thinks it is destructive radicalism simply because he disagrees with it.
I like the prism through which Alterman sees the political left. But breaking down radicals into constructive and destructive is just a way of silencing them. If radicals are not making liberals uncomfortable, they have no purpose. Alterman understands this. But he’s applying an irrational theoretical construct to it. All radical proposals are impossible. Until they aren’t. Each liberal has to decide what radical ideas are useful to them. That’s going to depend on each specific liberal and each specific radical idea. I get it: Alterman doesn’t like the BDS movement. But he is wrong to generalize based upon that.