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Online, the Left may be its own worst enemy. (Image via Unsplash, Sergey Zolkin)

The Cancel Culture of the ‘Anti-PC’ Left Will Be Its Downfall

In excising valuable allies, online progressives may be building walls instead of building winning movements.

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In excising valuable allies, online progressives may be building walls instead of building winning movements.

Largely as a result of spending far too much time on the internet, I am fascinated by online subcultures. And I am especially interested in political online subcultures. As someone who considers themselves a part of “the Left,” there is no shortage of them on “my side.” Indeed, the online Left is chock full of different factions. One faction in particular that has captured my attention as of late is what I have dubbed the “anti-PC Left.”

They represent an emergent, and somewhat syncretic, tendency within the broader online Left — a departure from the stereotypical progressive. The anti-PC Left can therefore be hard to pin down, but I think I have identified some key characteristics.

For one, they tend to be more center-left than far left, but are often Bernie or Bust. They are also quite populist. Their rhetoric is not pedantic, but instead channels a common rage of the working man. Do not expect them to quote Marx; do expect them to point out that you are working harder and harder for less and less. The anti-PC Left can also be identified by their eschewing of gratuitous identity politics. They are critical of wokeness, instead embracing a broad-based class politics.

Just to be clear, I consider these all to be positive things. There is one trend, however, on the anti-PC Left that I am not nearly as fond of: their unforgiving practices. Indeed, there is a sort of cancel culture on the anti-PC Left. Not one having to do with, say, getting someone’s pronouns wrong.

The cancel culture of the anti-PC Left is quite distinctive. When it comes to accusing people of selling out, they can be quite trigger happy. One false move, and you will get branded. Not even the purest of intentions are enough to shield oneself from accusations of betrayal by the anti-PC Left.

My first exposure to this tendency came in the form of responses to a Politico article about Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Titled “The ‘new’ AOC divides the left,” the piece caused quite the buzz online — particularly within the anti-PC Left. The article charted what the authors purport to be a change in Ocasio-Cortez’s political strategy. It contained lines like “Ocasio-Cortez … has been increasingly trying to work within the system.” For the anti-PC Left, this was proof enough that she had been completely subsumed by the establishment.

To see why I take issue with this charge, we must zoom out and look at who the woman known as “AOC” is. Ocasio-Cortez is remarkable for a variety of reasons, but let us just start with her rise to political stardom. Her story is the stuff of legends, and a perfect example of the American Dream so many thought dead.

As a 28-year-old bartender, Ocasio-Cortez pummeled incumbent Joe Crowley — one of the highest-ranking Democrats nationally at the time — by a whopping 15 points in her first ever primary. She then went on to sweep in the general election with more than 78% of the vote. From there, she quickly became one of the most recognizable faces in the Democratic Party.

Ocasio-Cortez has continued to find success in her re-election bid. Despite Trump donors dumping huge sums of money onto her “moderate” primary opponent, Ocasio-Cortez won with just under 73% of the vote. She is now well on her way to a deserved second term in the House of Representatives.

The significance of Ocasio-Cortez cannot be overstated. Her contributions to the progressive movement are immeasurable. For example, she has attracted droves of young people to the coalition. Her charismatic appeal, energy and fun social media presence have made politics cool again.

These qualities serve as the foundation of Ocasio-Cortez’s unique ability to shift the discourse. If not for her, the Green New Deal would not be in the national spotlight. At best, it would be a fringe issue. The same goes for a federal jobs guarantee. Pushing these progressive policies into the mainstream necessarily involves bucking the Democratic establishment, which remains very pro-corporate in nature.

It is therefore almost impossible to match Ocasio-Cortez’s anti-establishment credentials — and her detractors do not even come close. It is one thing to criticize the establishment; it is another to take them on and beat them at their own game. But this fact still will not stop the anti-PC Left from accusing Ocasio-Cortez of being co-opted.

Another figure who has found themselves in the crosshairs of this faction is Green Party presidential candidate, Howie Hawkins. Hawkins seems to have struck a nerve with one member of the anti-PC Left in particular: Richard Medhurst.

Often going by the pseudonym “Papi Chulomin,” Medhurst is a rising star online. He does political commentary and has racked up over 100,000 followers across his various social media profiles. Even Glenn Greenwald, founder of The Intercept, has taken notice. Greenwald retweeted a clip of Medhurst back in April, calling him “exceptionally smart.”

Just over a week prior to that notable retweet, Medhurst had some rather choice words for candidate Hawkins. Medhurst compared the Vietnam veteran’s foreign policy stances to those of Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, “… or any other neocon from DC.” He ended the statement with an emphatic “If you really care about brown people overseas[,] this guy can’t be trusted.”

This claim stands in stark contrast with what Hawkins is actually running on. All it takes is a quick trip to to find that his foreign policy platform reads like the perfect recipe for world peace. Therein, he calls for putting a stop to endless wars, bringing the troops home, nuclear disarmament and cutting military budget bloat. These proposals are hardly consistent with the senseless hawkishness and bloodlust of neoconservatism.

But perhaps Medhurst really did hear Hawkins say something that was genuinely troubling. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and take his word for it. But Hawkins has been a committed anti-war activist for around half a century. The idea that a couple of poorly-phrased sentences invalidate all the wonderful foreign policy advocacy Hawkins has done is exactly the kind of backward thinking that should be confronted.

More recently, Medhurst has attacked Representative Ilhan Omar. In early May, the Minnesota congresswoman and progressive firebrand signed on to a letter calling for a United Nations arms embargo on Iran. Medhurst made a YouTube video about it in which he called her “part of the problem.” He even claimed there is “no difference between” Omar’s foreign policy and that of Republicans. On his Twitter, he retweeted a plea for her to be primaried.

Never mind the fact that Omar has called for sanctions relief to help Iran deal with COVID-19. Never mind the fact that she has repeatedly rebuked the Israel lobby, and taken endless heat for it. Never mind the fact that she is the only DC official to have confronted Elliott Abrams to his face on war crimes in El Salvador. Never mind the fact that, in the short time she has been in office, she has already shot down two military budget increases. And never mind the fact that, earlier this year, Omar introduced a package of bills, titled “Pathway to PEACE,” that would reorient American foreign policy around principles of security, justice and diplomacy.

In other words, prior to signing that letter, Representative Omar’s foreign policy record had been just about impeccable. And perhaps this was to be expected. As a Somali refugee, Omar knows, firsthand, the immense cost of military conflict. This kind of experience is invaluable when it comes to making decisions of war and peace. I really do not think this is someone we should be excommunicating because of one bad letter.

A letter, I should add, that is non-binding. It also does not really call for anything new. Rather, the letter advocates for a prolonging of an existing arms embargo against Iran. Does Medhurst, nonetheless, have a right to criticize Omar for her signing of it? Absolutely. But you go astray when you act as though this single, relatively insignificant act invalidates all the great work she has done in the realm of foreign policy.

Then, we have the always-controversial Jimmy Dore. Formerly of “The Young Turks” and current host of “The Jimmy Dore Show,” this is another person whom I have a good deal of respect for. Dore’s popular YouTube channel has amassed almost 800,000 subscribers and over 315,000,000 channel views. In other words, he is quite an influential figure.

And, for a long time, I considered his large influence to be a positive thing. Dore makes a lot of important political points. However, he has gained an image among many on the Left as rather toxic.

After strongly supporting Bernie Sanders in 2016, Jimmy has since reneged on his support. He opted to endorse Tulsi Gabbard in 2020. As of late, Dore has taken a particularly hard line against Sanders.

He has, among plenty of other things, called the senator from Vermont “a cartoon of a leader” and “a complete joke.” Dore has also accused him of betraying his grassroots base and “selling… out at a nuclear speed.” He even went so far as to blame Sanders for Gabbard’s endorsement of Biden.

Aside from that last part, which is just ridiculous, perhaps Dore has some serious gripes with Sanders. That is certainly possible. Bernie, like anyone else, is not perfect. I have my disagreements with him as well. But those disagreements need to be put into context.

No single person has done more for the modern American Left than Bernie Sanders. He has mobilized tens of millions around progressive causes and has brought countless new people into the political process. His achievements as an organizer are unparalleled, and his legislative accomplishments are quite noteworthy as well.

Throughout his tenure in the United States Congress, Sanders has been a crucial stopgap against efforts to gut popular social programs, such as Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Nicknamed “The Amendment King,” Sanders has long had a special knack for getting progressive measures passed by fitting them into larger bills. During a decade of Republican control in the United States House, he was able to get more amendments passed than any other member in the body. In 2009, now in the Senate, Sanders used an amendment to limit H1-B hiring standards so that federal funds were not used to replace American workers during the Great Recession. Of course, this is all just scratching the surface of the great work Bernie has done in the United States Congress.

It is for these reasons that everyone in the progressive movement owes Bernie Sanders an eternal debt of gratitude. Without him, Dore’s great Medicare for All advocacy would fall on deaf ears because no one would even know what Medicare for All is. Bernie Sanders has more than proven himself. Attacking the man who built the movement Dore claims to be a part of with such vitriol is just inexcusable.

It seems lost on Dore, Medhurst and many others on the anti-PC Left that the Left is losing and losing badly. Even with the strides the Left has made, the dominant political culture in the United States remains quite reactionary. Most of the blame for this does not rest on the citizens themselves, though. On a litany of issues, they are far more progressive than they are typically given credit for.

Seventy percent of Americans want Medicare for All. Three-quarters of registered voters are in favor of a wealth tax. And roughly four in five — 92% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans — support a Green New Deal.

The numbers are there. These people just need to be activated. But when they look at the Left — and, in particular, the online Left — they see circular firing squads. The unforgiving nature of the online Left will make voters far less likely to join the cause. And can you really blame them?

These sorts of practices, championed by the anti-PC Left, are counterproductive to building the mass movement needed to incite structural change. The Left will only win by building a movement that is big-tent and inclusionary. And with more and more people engaging with politics via the internet, online Left spaces must demonstrate an understanding of this truth.

This requires that influencers within the online Left be able to tell the difference between imperfect allies and deadly enemies. People make mistakes, but if they are more good than bad, it does not make sense to treat them as though they are at fundamental odds. If Leftist leaders such as Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, Howie Hawkins and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fail your purity test, it may be time to rethink your politics.

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Elias Khoury

University of Michigan
Philosophy, Politics and Economics

Elias Khoury is an undergraduate junior at the University of Michigan. He's also on the editorial board of the Young Democratic Socialists of America's (YDSA) national publication, The Activist.

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