12/29/18

Why Chait and Yglesias are arguing about the Sanders left

Friday morning, Jonathan Chait wrote that
Sanders attracts the intense support of a small left-wing intellectual vanguard who see American politics in fundamentally terms than most Democrats do. The primary struggle in American politics as they see it is not between liberalism and conservatism, but between socialism and capitalism.
Within hours, Matt Yglesias rolled out a response:
I think [Chait]...ends up wildly overstating the policy content of pro-Bernie punditry...it's not fundamentally "about" policy - it's about specific human beings' control over the levers of power...it's fundamentally about *who gets to be in charge* rather than about what the policy is going to be.
What's going on here? In the tradition of speculating about pundit motives instead of just asking them what they think, here's my theory:
  • Chait is simply rehearsing the core argument that centrist groups like Third Way will make against Sanders in the coming year: that democratic socialism is extremist and unpopular. He concedes that Sanders pundits have a distinct ideology - but he only does this because he wants to vilify it, and to insist that the broader mass of Sanders supporters don't actually buy into it.
  • Yglesias is positioning himself on the left wing of respectable punditry. Here, this means defending himself against Sanders pundits who threaten to outflank him by insisting that they're engaged in an empty power-play rather than in a substantive fight for policy.

This kind of disagreement will probably define Sanders-skeptical Democrats for the foreseeable future.

And for what it's worth, I think that Chait's camp has the clearer view of the fight at hand. Yglesias belongs to a camp of Democrats that forged its identity in reaction to third way centrism: skeptical of cooperation with Republicans, and even open, in theory, to politics once vilified as "leftist". Today, however, that position has become much less coherent as it encounters a left politics - democratic socialism - that it hesitates to take seriously. Yglesias is struggling to maintain a political identity that is somehow distinct from Chait's left-skeptical centrism, and that's why he keeps getting mired in speculation about the motives of his critics, or in definitional arguments about what "democratic socialism" really means. Chait, meanwhile, knows exactly what it means - and that's why he wants to see it fail.