Left in the wilderness: the price of ideological zealotry for American liberals.

The political landscape in 2024 is defined by the ideological unity of the right and the fracturing of the left. The liberal left, which encompassed a relatively cohesive movement as recently as the early 2000s and the wall of opposition to the war in Iraq, has splintered into competing groups based on narrow interests and purity politics. Contrast this with the alliance of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, evangelicals, and nationalists who comprise the modern right-wing coalition.

The left's fragmentation came about as the dominant liberal monoculture broke down, accelerated by changes in technology and communication.

While the right has taken advantage of galvanising issues to expand its base, the left has increasingly turned inward, engulfed in battles over ideological minutiae and policing the boundaries of acceptable progressiveness. The political power of left-leaning movements has become diluted, undermining their ability to organise, win elections, and counter right-wing policies effectively.

Coming out of the New Deal era, America in the middle of the 20th century saw the vision and priorities of the mainstream left as relatively unified across a set of shared assumptions - support for labour unions and working-class voters, Keynesian economic interventionism, trust in governmental institutions as a force for good. Race and identity issues were simmering beneath the surface, but boomer liberal resistance to racial accountability had not yet split it in two.

Media supported a limited range of respectable opinions - think Hubert Humphrey style economic and social liberalism. The average Democratic voter in Pennsylvania likely had more political views in common with one in California than today. Flash forward to the 21st century, however, and this monoculture on the left has irrevocably shattered. Liberal baby boomers still tend to buy into old assumptions about economics and the working class as the natural base. Younger progressives take contemporary issues like racial justice and trans rights as foundational, viewing coalitional economic appeals to white working-class voters with suspicion. Simmering debates around Israel and Palestine or criminal justice reform cut across generational and racial lines rather than unifying behind a common platform.

As the old liberal consensus broke down, the left failed to forge a new coherent ideology in its wake. Instead, it has fragmented into ever more atomised subgroups, often deeply antagonistic towards any dissenting views within their own ranks. Constellations of ideologies grew up around particular interests - whether third-wave feminism, critical race praxis, democratic socialism, climate activism or others. And within each faction, lines are sharply policed by zealous guardians of purity.

The tendency towards ideological puritanism has escalated with the rise of callout and cancel culture on social media. Individuals compete to be the most radical and morally righteous, attacking any fellow travellers perceived as lacking sufficient empathy about a single, narrow issue. The Never Trump movement among right-leaning intellectuals shows some parallels. But few centrists or conservatives face the kind of persistent social media pile-ons from their own ideological allies. This is likely itself an asymmetric tactic - the quickest way to undermine an opposing ideology is often to amplify its most extreme voices.

Left-leaning progressives on Bluesky will pile on to attack other progressives - even if their views are largely the same - for not using alt text when sharing an image. And make no mistake - alt text is incredibly important. But the conservative right are not spending their energy hurling abuse at each other over it. They're sticking to their message, while the left scolds each other for narrative or ideology violations.

Compare this left infighting to the increasing coordination of traditionally disparate factions on the American right. Despite tenuous relationships historically, the modern Republican party has managed to unify social conservatives around issues like abortion, fiscal libertarians obsessed with deregulation and tax cuts, and ultra-nationalists behind demagogic leaders like Donald Trump. Fox News - and now Libs of TikTok - serve as an ideological glue. Occasional episodes flare up, exposing tensions - alt-right racist groups get hastily disavowed after violent attacks. But the differences get swiftly papered over in favour of strategic partisan priorities.

Big tech, trans rights, and cancel culture emerged as perfect galvanising enemies. Though the coalitions binding these factions contain inherent tensions, global trends toward ethno-nationalist populism provided an external tailwind. Strong top-down coordination from conservative media and political leaders has kept infighting at bay. At times, this uniformity itself becomes a target of liberal criticism - the classic example being media figures on the right universally turning against Mitt Romney for his impeachment vote against Trump. Nevertheless, liberals motivated by values of dissent and resistance to centralised authority trends may find it harder to replicate the messaging discipline characteristic of the modern right in America.

Regardless of liberal misgivings about hierarchical coordination, the left must acknowledge the dire political consequences of its current fragmentation. The inability to merge internal divisions was displayed in the bitter 2016 Democratic primary divide between Bernie Sanders supporters and centrists rallying behind Hillary Clinton. This almost certainly contributed to the lacklustre turnout that ultimately enabled Trump's victory. Despite the existential threat now posed by resurgent reactionary forces on the right, left infighting continues to flare up and hobble attempts to effectively organise. Report after report highlights intense battles between antagonistic moderate and progressive factions across deep blue districts. Right-wing media tactics have become so sophisticated that outlets like Fox now specifically amplify the most cringeworthy examples of progressive rhetoric to scare moderates back into the Republican camp. A unified populist economic agenda which addresses voter concerns around inflation and the decline of manufacturing has emerged as the obvious antidote. And yet Democrats seemed incapable of pivoting to such a strategy without triggering outraged accusations or dismissing single-issue concerns from their base. The political reality of another Trump term has yet to overcome the centrifugal ideological forces tearing at the modern American left.

What can be done to counteract these ominous trends? The difficulties here mirror common critiques of liberal political dysfunction more broadly - polarisation, lack of compromise, and failure to see shades of grey. As a starting point, the left desperately needs a shift in mindset, prioritising broad movement-building over enforcing ideological conformity on specific controversies. Fortunately, political necessity has sparked some gestures in this direction. Democrats largely papered over their divide in 2022 and united to pass major legislation in response to an increasingly unhinged right. Looking internationally, left-wing parties that manage to win national elections regularly embrace reform over revolution - compromising and building coalitions rather than sticking to uncompromising ideological platforms. The contemporary American left may look to the lessons of social democrats in Europe and Latin America on how to build a sustainable big-tent party. However, Doing so successfully will require overcoming the allure of the righteous ideological struggle that animates contemporary progressive activism.

There was a time in living memory when America supported a thriving liberal monoculture - a loosely coherent set of political positions and cultural reference points which defined membership across the mainstream left. But in recent decades, this monolith shattered beyond repair into endlessly factional minoritarian interests and purity contests. Victories once achieved through compromise and coalition now seem sacrificed at the altar of self-righteous posturing. All the while, the American right has seized on galvanising enemies and unresolved national divides to consolidate an increasingly extreme yet strangely uniform coalition. Their lockstep march towards power as the left cannibalises itself now poses an existential threat to democratic pluralism. Reversing these ominous trends poses uncomfortable questions. Can a movement driven by dissent unify behind shared leaders and messaging? Should achieving policy progress take priority over guarding the boundaries of ideological doctrine? The choices facing the left are difficult and beg introspection. Because outside their factional walls, the shadows are growing darker.

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