It is reasonable to wonder whether the divide between liberalism and leftism actually matters very much. Why does there actually need to be so much animosity between the Clinton and Sanders factions of the Democratic Party? (Or the Blair and Corbyn factions in the UK’s Labour Party.) Why on earth did the race for DNC chair between Keith Ellison and Tom Perez grow so vicious, given their substantially similar progressive credentials? With Donald Trump poised to ravage the planet, either through boiling it slowly over time or blowing it up instantaneously with his vast nuclear arsenal, it would seem time for liberals and leftists to emphasize their similarities rather than their differences. Squabbling over minutiae is a fine way to ensure political irrelevance, and if everyone agrees that right-wing policies are poisonous and immoral, then surely the differences among progressive and leftish people can be worked out later.

It’s also true that, according to one view, the differences between liberals and leftists are not even differences of substance, but differences of political strategy. The claim of people like Clinton and Blair is that, while they share the core progressive principles of compassion and equality, they are simply more hard-nosed and pragmatic. They are more cynical about the limits of political possibility, and believe that change happens slowly. From this perspective, the core difference between Clinton and Sanders is not their ultimate end goals (they both want a world of progressive values), but how to get there.

If that’s the case, and the core of the divide is over “compromise” versus “purity,” or “a view that major progress happens slowly” versus “a demand that it happens immediately,” then the disagreements here should be friendly ones. Unity should be pretty easy, because we’re literally trying to help one another pursue the same objective. I want the same things you do, but I simply think that I have a more effective way of getting them.

But while this is often the kind of language with which moderate liberals distinguish themselves from more “radical” progressive factions, I don’t actually think it does accurately describe the nature of the liberal/left divide. And while conservatives would lump all these varying political tendencies together as a generic political tendency called “the left,” there are some internal conflicts that are both fundamental and irresolvable. It is not simply a disagreement over tactics among people who share ideals. The two sets of ideals are different, and come from two entirely different worldviews.

The core divergence in these worldviews is in their beliefs about the nature of contemporary political and economic institutions. The difference here is not “how quickly these institutions should change,” but whether changes to them should be fundamental structural changes or not. The leftist sees capitalism as a horror, and believes that so long as money and profit rule the earth, human beings will be made miserable and will destroy themselves. The liberal does not actually believe this. Rather, the liberal believes that while there are problems with capitalism, it can be salvaged if given a few tweaks here and there. As Nancy Pelosi said of the present Democratic party: “We’re capitalist.” When Bernie Sanders is asked if he is a capitalist, he answers flatly: “No.” Sanders is a socialist, and socialism is not capitalism, and there is no possibility of healing the ideological rift between the two. Liberals believe that the economic and political system is a machine that has broken down and needs fixing. Leftists believe that the machine is not “broken.” Rather, it is working perfectly well; the problem is that it is a death machine designed to chew up human lives. You don’t fix the death machine, you smash it to bits.

I was recently reminded of the nature of the difference while glancing through Timothy Snyder’s (very) short book On Tyranny. Snyder is a historian of fascism, who believes that the rise of Donald Trump has parallels with 20th century authoritarian movements, and he offers twenty “lessons” for how ordinary people should act under tyrannical regimes. (Trump actually goes undiscussed in the book, but it is quite clear throughout what Snyder is referring to when he talks about contemporary tyranny.) Some of Snyder’s lessons reminded me strongly of why, despite our mutual antipathy for Trump, there is such a serious contrast between his beliefs (as a liberal) and my own (as a leftist).

One Snyder lesson was particularly striking: Number 19—Be a Patriot. Snyder’s exhortation to patriotism runs as follows:

What is patriotism? Let us begin with what patriotism is not. It is not patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock war heroes and their families… It is not patriotic to compare one’s search for sexual partners in New York with the military service in Vietnam that one has dodged. [Snyder’s use of this oddly specific act is a good representation of just how clear it is that the book is about Trump despite treating the president as a Voldemort-esque unmentionable.] It is not patriotic to avoid paying taxes…. It is not patriotic to admire foreign dictators… It is not patriotic to cite Russian propaganda at rallies. It is not patriotic to share an adviser with Russian oligarchs. It is not patriotic to solicit foreign policy advice from someone who owns shares in a Russian energy company…  [Snyder’s list of things that are not patriotic goes on further.] [P]atriotism involves serving your own country. [A patriot] wants the nation to live up to its ideals…A patriot has universal values.

Snyder’s patriotism passage stuck out to me, because I realized I totally rejected a core part of his message: the idea that “patriotism” is a good thing to begin with. Patriotism has always seemed to me to be a profoundly irrational notion; I believe one should love and serve humanity, not one’s particular arbitrary geopolitical segment of humanity. Snyder’s problem with Trump is that Trump is not enough of a patriot. But I see all rhetoric of patriotism as profoundly conservative and antithetical to everything I believe. In fact, I find Snyder’s whole case to be based on deeply conservative principles. Rhetoric against “draft dodgers”? The idea that one shouldn’t listen to the advice of someone with shares in a foreign company? What the hell kind of liberalism is this?


But that’s why I say the divide has something to do with one’s view of political and economic institutions as either fundamentally good or not. The liberal sees the conservative patriot wearing a flag pin and says: “A flag pin isn’t what makes you a patriot.” The leftist says: “Patriotism is an incoherent and chauvinistic notion.” The liberal says, “We’re the real ones who love America,” while the leftist says, “What is America?” or “I don’t see what it would mean to love or hate a meaningless conceptual entity.” The liberal says, “I’m standing up for what the Founding Fathers actually believed” while the leftist says, “The Founding Fathers endorsed the ownership of human beings. Some owned human beings themselves, and beat or raped these human beings. I will not measure the worth of something by what the Founding Fathers thought about it.” Certainly, the word “liberal” is an unfortunately overbroad and imprecise term, but it’s fair to say that some strains of liberalism actually have more values in common with conservatism than with leftism, in that they affirm key conservative premises that leftists abhor. (e.g. all that “America is the greatest country in the history of the world” poppycock.) 

I don’t think this difference is merely rhetorical. Sometimes it is; the ACLU often sees as politically and legally advantageous to frame everything it does as a defense of the great and noble values embedded in the Constitution, instead of pointing out that many of the Constitution’s values are not particularly great or noble. But there is also a strong sense in which the liberal affirms the nation’s core ideological underpinnings, while the leftist rejects them. (Some other divides: the liberal view of the Vietnam War is that it was well-intentioned but doomed and badly handled. The leftist view is that it was evil in both intention and execution. Likewise with Iraq: was George W. Bush a well-meaning bungler or a predatory war criminal?)

Snyder’s suggestions for resisting tyranny are in conflict with leftism in other ways. Most of them are individualistic: they focus on people as isolated units. Thus they include:

  • Believe in truth.
  • Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  • Contribute to good causes.
  • Listen for dangerous words.
    • Practice “corporeal” politics. [Sarcastic quotation marks my own.]
  • Make eye contact and small talk.
  • Establish a private life.

Amusingly, most of these seem like woefully ineffective weapons against fascism. At best they are useless (“Make small talk”??). At worst, like prescriptions for “revolutionary self care” (e.g. learning to play an instrument as revolutionary act), they provide convenient rationalizations for people’s inaction, allowing them to feel as if they are being politically active by doing the same thing they were probably going to do anyway. Read the news! Hug your friends! The idea that these things constitute meaningful resistance to Trump could be held only by somebody who wasn’t actually thinking about what serious political change looks like.

Leftists, on the other hand, are constantly talking about “building a mass movement” and “taking power.” They don’t just want to change our lifestyles, or get people to donate a bit more here and there to a good cause. The leftist believes in upending everything, which “corporeal” politics very much do not. (“Put your body in unfamiliar places,” Snyder says. One can only contemplate what the reaction would have been if Snyder had handed copies of his “lessons for resisting tyranny” to the residents of Warsaw in 1943.)

That could be classified as simply another tactical difference: the leftist tells Snyder that his plans won’t work, but we do all want the same things. But I think it goes somewhat beyond that. I hate the word “neoliberalism” and have mostly banned it from this magazine (to the extent that it’s even meaningful, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “it’s not new and it’s not liberal”), but I do think something has happened over the past few decades where moderate members of traditionally left parties have become incredibly reluctant to challenge the status quo in any serious way. As Luke Savage has written about the “West Wing view” of politics, today’s Democratic Party is dominated by political aspirations that mostly consist of having good character rather than effecting serious structural change. As Snyder’s book shows, this ideology doesn’t really espouse a clear set of political ends, and is focused intensely on individual action rather than collective action. Snyder, for example, does not discuss the need to build an effective labor movement, which is a core part of any serious attempt to regain progressive political power, and a necessity if the Trumps of the world are to be stopped. But he does believe we should make eye contact and read The New York Times more.

So I don’t think it’s the case that liberalism is just a slower-moving form of leftism. There are real ideological differences. Barack Obama wished to pretend that underneath it all, Americans really just believed the same things. But they don’t. And the only way you can make it so that they do is to sap progressivism of any and all elements that seriously challenge the status quo. If you make it so that the difference between a Trump economic policy and a Clinton economic policy is the difference between trying to appoint the CEO of Carls Jr. as Labor Secretary and trying to appoint the CEO of Starbucks as Labor Secretary, then yes, there won’t be much of a serious ideological divide among American political elites. But people on the left can never sign on to such an approach, because it ditches their core commitment to restructuring the economy from the ground up.

Does this mean that anti-Trump forces are doomed to political infighting on everything? No, I don’t think so. Because even if you ultimately cannot reconcile your values with someone else’s, you can still forge temporary alliances for the purposes of achieving common political goals. Pelosi and Sanders share the goal of ridding the world of Trump, and it is possible to collaborate based on what we do have in common. That’s why Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton and told his followers to vote for her. The fact that, at the end of the day, the liberal/left conflict is real and intractable does not preclude a liberal/left coalition in undermining the Trump agenda. It just means that this coalition is ultimately destined to be temporary.

None of what I have said will be news to leftists, most of whom know full well that their disagreements with Democrats go well beyond the merely tactical. But I think it’s worth spelling out clearly, because it’s reasonable to wonder just how deep the division really goes, versus how much of it is unnecessary warring over issues of strategy. And while I am a firm believer that the enemy of my enemy is my temporarily politically useful coalition partner, the answer is that the divide goes very deep indeed.