A perfect end to 2020 for the left.

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It’s Christmas Eve here in Los Angeles. The city is quiet, eviction courts are still slated to reopen after Christmas, and the pandemic is running rampant. But what’s happening around us — in our own cities and neighborhoods — almost doesn’t matter anymore. We’re all half-stuck in our hovels in this half-baked libertarian American lockdown, plugged into our Perky Pat layouts and not paying much attention to the “real” world outside — unless its mediated through the Internet.

And if you’ve spent any time online in the last week or so, you’ve probably noticed or maybe even taken part in the latest online sensation: an epic DORE vs AOC Medicare For All fight that’s being waged over thousands of Twitter threads, YouTube channels, and Patreon and Substack feeds of the American Left.

On the one side is Jimmy Dore and his fellow influencers and supporters — who want the left-progs in Congress to withhold their votes in support for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, unless she agrees to bring a vote for Medicare For All to the floor. For them it’s a way of forcing liberal members of Congress to make their opposition of universal healthcare during a pandemic a matter of public record — a way of smoking out the enemy so that the assholes can be primaried and chased out of office in some future election. On the other side are Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her various influencers and supporters — who preach gradualism and who say that forcing such a vote is nothing but theater. To them, it wastes precious political energy and pushes away potential future Congressional allies that they need to achieve small but important political victories in the future.

Both sides have their allies and supporters among the left, prog-left, and non-denominational anti-system factions, and they’ve been duking it out in an increasingly incoherent all-platforms flame war.

Clearly, lots of people are getting energized by this fight. I guess if I had to choose, I’d be more inclined to take Dore’s side in the conflict. I mean, what’s the point of seeking Congressional power if you’re not gonna use it to make a scene, gum up the works, and show up your enemies? But as I see it, what side a person takes here doesn’t really matter because the whole thing is being driven by the worst and most deluded tendency of today’s entrepreneurial-media and ambitious-incrementalist left: its focus on Washington, D.C.

No matter where these pols or influencers stand on Force the Vote, all of them believe in — and can’t stop streaming and tweeting about — “the process.” They really think they can meaningfully impact change on a federal level, despite the fact that beyond their popular podcasts and YouTube channels and their pitiful collection of Congressional seats, there is no organized political movement to back them or their policies up. It doesn’t matter if they broadcast from LA, DC, or New York; none of them operate from within any local politics — because there are no local politics — and so national and federal fights are pretty much the only thing they focus on. Raging and yelling about about this stuff might be entertaining — but it’s pointless as politics.

It might have been easy for people to believe that there was surging left-wing movement in American politics while Bernie Sanders’ star was rising in 2016 and 2020. I had always been skeptical about how deeply that left movement actually went, but even I — cynical as I am — started believing in it a bit last winter. Shit. Bernie has a chance, I thought. Maybe there is something real happening here. But then he got crushed, endorsed drooling Joe Biden, licked the “we can move him left” boot, ducked out of the fight, and exposed a totally barren political left landscape. Turns out that Bernie’s “revolution” was really nothing other than an electoral campaign, after all — and that campaign and all the organizational energy it harnessed dissolved immediately with his candidacy. What did it leave behind? Not much, other than huge platforms for a few top influencers and political operatives who leveraged the Bern into lucrative Patreon and Substack careers.

Who am I talking about? Well, people like David Sirota, who seems to have taken his official Bernie campaign Substack newsletter and privatized its massive email list post-election for personal profit. Or his comrade Briahna Joy Gray, who just launched a podcast with a Chapo cohost that’s already raking in more than $35,000 a month. Meanwhile, the people whose interests these two Bernie operatives had represented — the millions who gave Bernie a few bucks — are being immiserated more and more. David and Briahna are now on different sides of the Force the Vote fight, arguing endlessly on platforms with multi-tiered subscription offers. And what service do these leftwing influencers provide to the people? As far as I can tell, not much other than distraction and politics-as-entertainment. It’s all very fucking grim.

Just a humble media op run by Sanders’ press secretary and a guy who started his media career as a servile member of Glenn Greenwald’s Twitter troll army. Let them eat podcasts!

So the Bernie “revolution” was a dud and disappeared right in front of our very eyes, while spawning a new prog-left media ecosystem that is very profitable for a few key influencers. Listening to their streams and podcasts — with their entrepreneurial hosts and pundits and panels filled with the same left celebs and climbers and NGO-funded left-liberal experts — it’s like they’ve recreated their own national-level media bubble, a low-rent MSNBC with the same sort of imperatives driving their output: revenue, celebrity, marketing, and the constant need for fear and conflict and hero and evildoer narratives to drive eyeballs and subs. The Shahid Buttar phenomenon that I wrote about this summer was an example of the shallowness of this new media ecosystem. And this current Force The Vote flame war is another. Most of it is performative politics. Even Jimmy Dore admitted as much. Turns out his righteous outrage, his screaming, his insults, and the take-no-prisoners rhetoric he deploys against his foes is just an act. He turns around and gets all warm and cuddly with the prog-liberal technocrats he “destroys” on air. They’re all professionals, after all!

In a way, this Force the Vote fight is a perfect end to Bernie’s defeat — and a perfect closure to the national left politics of 2020. And if this wasn’t a good enough closing act for you by itself, we also got the pitiful $600 in stimulus payments as a bonus double feature. AOC and most of The Squad voted for this horrible giveaway to our imperial elite that threw a few crumbs to the peasants, all while angrily tweeting against it — only to have the Democratic Party get outflanked, PR-wise, by Trump. A confusing and depressing time to be sure!

If you step back and look at it, this constant focus on DC politics and DC fights is the problem. People should know about what’s happening there, of course. But it’s not the place where you go to do battle. Power is too entrenched there. And the left’s armies aren’t just weak — they’re non-existent. What are people gonna storm that imperial fortress with? Tweets and multi-guest YouTube live streams?

If people still believe that democracy has a chance — and that democracy is indeed something worth fighting for — they have to turn away from Washington DC and away from this obsession with national elections, Congress, the presidency, and the Democratic Party. My friend Joe Costello has been saying this stuff for years and years, and these days I’m in total agreement with him. You have to shun DC politics. It does not matter what kind of Sample Pack of progressives or socialists you manage to elect into some national slot, without a broad and engaged political movement behind them — nothing will happen. You have to build movements close to home with the people who live in your own neighborhood, in your own city. You have to slowly figure out things among yourself locally and create not just a movement but a political culture that can take on our imperial oligarchy. And only then do you build up from there. It’s not gonna be a lighting process. And it’s definitely not gonna be a splashy election campaign — which seems like the only politics that we can truly organize around these days, and even then only with the help of oligarchic advertising platforms like Facebook.

I write all this knowing that talk is cheap. I myself have been moving around so much in the last decade that I’ve become atomized and disconnected from any sort of local politics, even if I do try to get involved from time to time. Hell, I go back and forth on whether democracy is even possible in today’s late imperial America, torn as is with propaganda and indoctrination and micro-targeted culture war bullshit. But without trying to create a politics that scorns this obsession with federal fights and winning big elections, nothing will happen. Absolutely nothing.

It feels like an impossible task, and maybe it is impossible. Just because people are suffering doesn’t mean they’ll automatically create an insurgent democratic political movement. That requires something else — and that something seems to be missing from American culture.

As Lawrence Goodwyn wrote in The Populist Moment…

The reigning American presumption about the American experience is grounded in the idea of progress, the conviction that the present is “better” than the past and the future will bring still more betterment. This reassuring belief rests securely on statistical charts and tables certifying the steady upward tilt in economic production. Admittedly, social problems have persisted—inequities of income and opportunity have plagued the society—but these, too, have steadily been addressed through the sheer growth of the economy. For all of its shortcomings, the system works.

This is a powerful assumption. It may be tested by reflecting upon the fact that, despite American progress, the society has been forced to endure sundry movements of protest. In our effort to address the inconvenient topic of protest, our need to be intellectually consistent—white thinking within the framework of continuous progress—has produced a number of explanations about the nature of dissent in America. Closely followed, these arguments are not really explanations at all, but rather the assertion of more presumptions that have the effect of defending the basic intuition about progress itself. The most common of these explanations rests upon what is perceived to be a temporary malfunction of the economic order: people protest when “times are hard.” When times stop being “hard,” people stop protesting and things return to “normal”—that is to say, progress is resumed.

Unfortunately, history does not support the notion that mass protest movements develop because of hard times. Depressed economies or exploitive arrangements of power and privilege may produce lean years or even lean lifetimes for millions of people, but the historical evidence is conclusive that they do not produce mass political insurgency. The simple fact of the matter is that, in ways that affect mind and body, times have been “hard” for most humans throughout human history and for most of that period people have not been in rebellion. Indeed, traditionalists in a number of societies have often pointed in glee to this passivity, choosing to call it “apathy” and citing it as a justification for maintaining things as they are.

This apparent absence of popular vigor is traceable, however, not to apathy but to the very raw materials of history—that complex of rules, manners, power relationships, and memories that collectively comprise what is called culture. “The masses” do not rebel in instinctive response to hard times and exploitation because they have been culturally organized by their societies not to rebel. They have, instead, been instructed in deference. Needless to say, this is the kind of social circumstance that is not readily apparent to the millions who live within it.

Don’t mean to end 2020 on such a negative note, but these are the kinds of times we’re in. Take care of yourself this holiday season.

—Yasha Levine