I’ve been thinking a lot about the following tweet, by, I gather, some Democratic Party-aligned liberal guy who writes for something called Shareblue, since it was posted yesterday. It makes me feel extremely bummed out and lost:
Is this what the fight between mainstream liberals and the so-called dirtbag left is over? Who knows how to win? I hope it isn’t. Maybe it will not be a shock that the guy who wrote a blog post literally titled “Fuck Winning” would find this unspeakably depressing, but bear with me.
Politics, of course, is a battle between competing interests; winning matters. Of course it does. (It matters in particular for the left: The forces arrayed against labor and the poor and the marginalized certainly are not seeking any kind of equitable compromise.) In theory, the job of politicians and political parties is to identify their constituents’ interests and advocate for them persuasively, in elections and then in the big complex negotiations that make up the work of governing. The goal in all these things will be to win; if you recoil at the strict win-loss binary in which a win requires the defeat of someone else, then at the very least everybody can agree on “win” as a synonym for “gain.”
So—again, theoretically—identifying and persuasively arguing for a program that lots and lots of people will want to vote for and get behind can be described as “knowing how to win.” But that is only one of the things that can be described as “knowing how to win.” Bill Clinton knew how to win elections. He almost never lost one. Then he participated in rolling back welfare protections for the neediest people in American society, passed a crime bill that transferred millions of those people to prison, and expanded the use of the federal death penalty. He knew how to win. I’m not sure it did much good for the many millions of people who needed him to win for them.
Knowing how to win is not strictly the same thing as being a good political party. Obviously. A political party can win and win and win at the electoral level and still not accomplish anything of genuine, lasting benefit to the classes of people—workers, the poor, the marginalized—who actually need it. For example: Both American political parties, which have been taking turns winning elections and mostly not doing jack shit for those classes of people for quite a bit longer than I have been alive.
For a long time, whatever moral credibility the left has had—with me, and I hope more broadly—has come not from a claim that it knows how to win, but that, collectively, it has had its eye fixed on why winning matters: Because the American way of life continually ignores and erases millions and millions of people when it is not actively fucking and exploiting them, and those people need their lives made materially better; they need American society made fairer and more just, not incrementally or indirectly, not by tinkering around with the margins of capitalism but by smashing it. The claim was: These policies (broadly, universal health care, wealth redistribution, regulation of industry) will make American society more fair and just for the people it historically fucks, and so the job of the Democratic Party should be to make a persuasive case for them, even if it’s harder than pandering to the racial insecurities of Southern whites or makes a certain class of meritocrat feel uncomfortable.
The results of the recent snap election in the United Kingdom—in which the Labour party under undisguised leftist Jeremy Corbyn gained a shocking 30 seats in Parliament, largely campaigning on pledges to make life materially better for working-class people—seems to have altered the discussion here in the United States a bit. The left’s claim seems to have changed to We know how to win. That’s not entirely unreasonable: The wised-up party apparatus that has been pooh-poohing actual left policy aims for the past like 35 years on the basis that it alone holds a monopoly on knowing the business of winning elections did, after all, just lose a layup election to Donald fucking Trump, possibly fatally torpedoing the (already historically dubious!) claim that cynical, centrist positioning is the skeleton key to elections.
But, fuck that. The left’s duty is to reject the premise of this Shareblue dweeb’s tweet. Foregrounding “how to win” is how one of the two parties got taken over by Bill Clinton and the Third Way centrists in the first place: For one thing, it falsely assumes all victories look the same, and benefit the same people; that everyone is working toward the same goal. For chrissakes, if the past 30 years have demonstrated any one fucking thing, it’s that that’s not true—that “Sure, s/he campaigns like this, but that’s only because s/he knows how to win; surely s/he’ll actually govern like that” is bad and stupid and self-destructive.
The surest way to win always will involve cynical pandering and lying; it will always be more profitable to seek the support of the powerful by negotiating on the needs of the weak. The people who do it best always will be ambitious scum. Consigning government to a re-election contest between those people means enduring the downward-spiraling contest-winning contest indefinitely, until the ruin implied by our present trajectory arrives. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour won for many reasons (including blind panic at the mistaken disaster that was Brexit); the best hope for anybody isn’t that they knew how to win, but that they oriented themselves toward justice, whether it was the safest route to electoral victory or not, and common people wanted to follow.
“How” is the wrong conversation. “Why” is the right one.