Opinion

You can blame us self-absorbed Berkeley liberals for the election results — but not our identity politics

I ’ve heard the far left and the left argue among themselves, to the exclusion of all others, nearly every day for the last year and a half. How have I had this good fortune? I live in Berkeley, a college town regularly rated as the most liberal enclave in California.

I know that most Americans, and even fellow Californians, roll their eyes at Berkeley liberals; you think we’re precious, out of touch, solipsistic. You might blame our brand of politics for helping to lose this election. To a certain extent you’re right.

I still believe that progressivism serves the majority of American voters, including the white working class, far better than Donald Trump’s policies. But the Berkeley liberal — which is, to be clear, not as much a location-based identity as a state of mind — failed to compellingly articulate this vision to many voters between the coasts. I regret that we so often came across as sanctimonious when we tried.

This failure contributed to the election’s stunning outcome, where the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, ultimately costing her the presidency. 

I regret that we have so often failed to welcome everyone into the conversations that campus movements are having about identity and protection. Too often, the progressive movement has made the curious feel stupid, or the less liberal feel shunned. This is a mistake we pay for dearly. If we are going to strengthen the reach of the progressive movement, we must broaden our conception of inclusiveness rather than flatten its dimensions. This does not mean changing our message to court bigots.

I am not sorry that liberals refused to lie to white middle-Americans about what was possible in their lives. I am not sorry that we did not tell them we’d bring back all their manufacturing and coal-mining jobs; we won’t, and we can’t. If Donald Trump has a heart, that lie should weigh heavy on it.

I am not sorry that we spoke to identity; it isn’t a hat that minority Americans take on or off depending on the weather. If we erase identity from the progressive movement, we tell people of color, the LGBT community, religious minorities and others that their lived experiences were only ever relevant to the extent they helped us win. That’s repellent and cynical; the conversation should be beneath us.

I am deeply sorry that Hillary Clinton lost. The left made many mistakes; among them was not having the gall to stand up to the far left. The far left was so rigid in its orthodoxy that it repeatedly punished those trying to strategize about electing the Democratic candidate with self-serving accusations that those who disagreed with their tactics were racists, sexists or sellouts.

We let the left of the left have its way. And the far left wanted to be morally superior more than it wanted to stop Donald Trump.

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Berkeley was overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders. Bernie lost the election in June. In the five intervening months, I was privy to innumerable conversations led by people on the far left about how inferior Clinton’s platform was; how wanting she was as a candidate; how centrist, how corrupt, how uninspiring. I was privy to exactly zero conversations about how the far left would organize and promote its values in the advent of a Trump presidency.

And I saw very few on the left tell the far left: “I know Clinton is an imperfect candidate. I know that her superpredator comment was disgusting, and that she stood behind the 1994 crime bill that led to the incarceration and suffering of so many people of color. She has apologized, and although she has not done enough to ensure us she will unravel the suffering she contributed to, she is the only candidate who sees people of color as fully human. If we want progressivism to have more than a snowflake’s chance in hell in the next four years, you absolutely must show up and vote for her.”

I saw very few on the left tell the far left: “Clinton was my candidate, but if Bernie had won the primary I’d vote for him in a heartbeat.” I saw very few on the left say: “Bernie told you to vote for Clinton. He told you 40 freaking times.”

I saw nobody on the left say: “Look, I’ll write ‘I was more liberal than Hillary and I was right’ on your gravestone. Now just go vote, dammit.”

When those of us on the left initiate strategic conversations with the far left, we’re frequently shamed for not subscribing to its values, which is not the crux of our dissent. For the most part, our vision is shared. But the left didn’t believe the far left would win by painting as bigoted, insensitive and corrupt anyone who disagreed with the notions that a liberal revolution was possible, that third-party candidates were a legitimate voting choice, and that Clinton needed to be publicly squeezed and humiliated into becoming Bernie Sanders.

We didn’t have those hard conversations; instead, we pandered. Why risk being publicly shamed, willfully misunderstood? Lefty politics have become a claustrophobic minefield, a party that no one wants to go to.

In the months between June and November, those on the far left who thought they could afford to intellectualize the suffering that Trump’s election would cause sat on their hands and whined about Clinton; now they bemoan the horrors they are certain will come. Loudly. Around every table I sit at.

It’s a lose-lose situation. The left and the far left voted separately, but we lost together.

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In an interview, writer George Saunders said of Trump supporters, “When I am trying to be ‘kind’ I often default in a sort of toothless loving-all stance that is, actually, not kind, because it is not truthful.”

That sentence has stayed with me. In an effort to elevate true speech above toothless faux-kindness, I now ask the far left: What exactly did you think was going to happen, while you were bickering with each other about who was more righteous in a perfect universe?

Here’s what happened in ours. The right loudly, actively disagreed with itself, and then showed up at the polls and voted for its candidate — our future president, Donald J. Trump.

Does that phrase hurt in your mouth? You should have been there.

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For a long time, I wasn’t ready to acknowledge far-left liberals’ grievances. I am now. They believe the Democratic National Committee was rigged in Clinton’s favor; Bernie could have won; Clinton was an uninspiring leader; Clinton paid lip service to but did not have a vision for realizing true progressive values; ad infinitum.

Some of these points are true, some are unknowable, and some are a matter of perspective. None were worth the price we now pay.

The cost of the far left and the left sitting at two separate tables looks like this:

  • Donald Trump, real estate developer and “locker room”-talking misogynist, president
  • Reince Priebus, Republican party top brass, chief of staff
  • Stephen K. Bannon, opportunistic and overseer of a race-baiting website, chief strategist
  • Sen. Jeff Sessions of  Alabama, immigration hardliner once denied a federal judgeship over allegations that he made racist comments, attorney general
  • Lt. General Michael Flynn, vocal critic of the Muslim religion, national security advisor
  • Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, Koch-funded tea party darling and defender of torture, CIA director

Progressivism isn’t a cause divorced from consequence.

If Clinton had been president, Bernie Sanders would have been in the room. If Clinton had been president, more people of color and women and LGBT Americans and men who genuinely support working-class economic interests would have been in the room. Even if the Republican House and Republican Senate refused to ever confirm Clinton’s Supreme Court nominee, at least they wouldn’t have been able to ratify a lifetime appointment for someone who represents Donald Trump’s vision of America. 

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The left and the far left have been divided by strategy, but we remain bound by belief.

We believe the first obligation of our democracy is to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

That means that we believe white supremacy has no place in American life, and no place in public policy. America is made richer by the ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual diversities of its people.

We believe in science. We believe that human rights are a birthright of all people, including those beyond our borders. We believe that those rights include women’s agency to make decisions about their own bodies; people of color’s safety and equal treatment, both in daily life and under the law; as well as queer and transgender people’s freedom of expression and entitlements. We believe that securing these rights is a primary function of public policy. We believe that harassment is not an acceptable cost of doing business with the powerful. We believe in a free press. We believe in economic justice, corporate controls and environmental regulation. We believe in much more than can be stated in a single paragraph.

The progressive vision has deep value. It’s worth fighting for.

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Life under Trump. Let us be humbled, and let us learn. The left and the far left should never again choose to fight the right’s battle against Democratic candidates. That does not mean there is no room for dissent or open communication in our movement; free expression is the underpinning of progressivism. But when the primary is done and election day comes around, the left and the far left need to go to the polls and cast our ballots together. The future of our values, our planet, and its people depends on, yes, strategic coordination. It’s not as sexy as socialist revolution, but it’s more likely to save us.

Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to OpinionFollow her @velvetmelvis on Twitter.

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