In his 1959 Rede Lectures, the British scientist-novelist C.P. Snow described intellectual life at the time as defined by “the two cultures.” Snow’s focus was on the chasm of misunderstanding that had developed between the physical sciences and the humanities, but his notion of two cultures is a useful framing device for thinking through cultural conflicts more broadly.
As Snow noted, the clash of cultures was not merely a disagreement about facts or policies; it was about seemingly mundane differences that led to misunderstandings. People on either side read different books, pursued different activities, appealed to different authorities, and drew on vastly different vocabularies to describe their worlds. As a result, Snow argued, there was “between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.”
If the reaction to Senator Bernie Sanders’s announcement that he will once again seek the Democratic party’s nomination for president is any guide, Snow’s description seems an apt assessment of a newly-emerging divide among socialists in the United States. Sanders should be an uncomplicated progressive front-runner. He has high name recognition, a devoted fan base, and a solid grass-roots network. His campaign announced that it had raised more than $3.3 million across the country in just the first 12 hours after his announcement (a better showing than Kamala Harris).
Sanders’s message today, as in 2016, is his take on old-school socialism for an American audience. Speaking to John Dickerson on CBS News, Sanders noted that Medicare for all, free public college, and a higher minimum wage were still on his policy wish list. He indulged in some gloating when telling Dickerson that people had told him in 2016, “Oh Bernie, they’re so radical. They are extreme. The American people just won’t accept those ideas.” As Sanders noted, “All of these ideas and many more are part of the political mainstream.” Even Fox & Friends called Sanders a “legitimate socialist” and said he wanted to turn the U.S. into Venezuela.
Legitimate or not, Bernie’s democratic socialism has evidently not adapted fully to the demands of intersectionality. Even though Sanders called Trump a “racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe” in his announcement, when he was asked about the optics of an old white man serving as the standard-bearer of the Democratic party in 2020, Bernie broke the first commandment of identity politics: he denied the importance of identity. He told Vermont Public Radio, “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age.” He added that people should be judged “based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.”
This was too much for progressives, many of whom recall the criticism of Sanders’s 2016 campaign for ignoring sexual harassment and paying women less than men, as well as the “toxic masculinity” of the so-called Bernie bros who were among Sanders’ most zealous supporters. Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, tweeted, “At a time where folks feel under attack because of who they are, saying race or gender or sexual orientation or identity doesn’t matter is not off, it’s simply wrong.”
The stirrings of this intersectional socialism will prove a challenge to the traditional socialism of a Bernie Sanders. This new socialism is youthful and social-media savvy. It is far more marketable, in part, because it is willfully or woefully historically ignorant and generally unconcerned with evidence of socialism’s failures in practice. It is heavily steeped in identity politics despite the fact that socialist movements historically have been grounded in universalist principles (“Workers of the world, unite”) whose common cause was supposed to be pursued regardless of geography or race or background or sexual preference.
It is also incredibly comfortable with contradictions. As Jonah Goldberg argued in our pages about Bernie supporters in 2016, “Millennials who supported Bernie Sanders almost certainly don’t care about the weedy specifics of his health-care plans.” What they wanted was an easy attack on capitalism and a sense of social solidarity that still allowed for an iPhone in every pocket.
But as Sanders’s misstep reveals, the two socialisms can peacefully coexist only so long one doesn’t challenge the identity politics of the other. Even socialist solidarity now demands obeisance to diversity doctrine and sympathy with what Thomas Chatterton Williams has called “entrepreneurial suffering.”
It also demands a tolerance for glib propagandizing. As the co-founders of Means of Production, a “film collective” that made Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ sleek socialist-infused campaign ad, argued, “[Socialism] was alive and well in this country in the past, and it can be again. In order for that to happen, people need to start encountering a socialist perspective in a variety of contexts, including maybe a comedic animation about how much work sucks.” (They plan to launch a streaming platform they describe as Netflix for socialists.)
For now, the divide between the old-school socialists and the intersectional socialists is small, and the intersectionalists remain on board with Bernie in 2020 (the latest issue of Jacobin magazine is a futuristic look at the presumably utopian world we will all live in under a Bernie presidency–a “true story of the future” including “a twenty year plan to make over a country”).
“America will never be a socialist country,” President Trump asserted during his State of the Union speech. He’s probably right; even many Democratic primary candidates see little risk in distancing themselves from the socialist label—Amy Klobuchar recently criticized Sanders’s promises of free college and Medicare for all during a televised town hall meeting as unrealistic, and Kamala Harris, campaigning in New Hampshire, stated that she was not a Democratic Socialist.
Since 2016, there has been considerable (and necessary) debate about what Donald Trump’s presidency means for conservatism. The identity politics policing of even a stalwart socialist like Sanders suggests that the conversation more liberals should be having in the run-up to 2020 is what the triumph of identity politics means for the left.