The last democratic debate was mostly good. Two people, who represent very different visions for the future and strategies for how to arrive at that future, had just about as fair and faithful of a debate as one could expect from a cable news-hosted event. Orbiting this central debate is a swirling mass of half-arguments that has more energy than thought-out direction, made up of a cadre of writers who are lining up against the most tattered and boring of banners: Brocialism versus Lean In Feminism. The corporatized feminism that advocates for equal terms in boardroom competition and the smarmy machismo of socialism made for mansplaining both come out of several bad ideological compromises. We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we did not attempt to move beyond these camps into a more honest discussion.
Lean In Feminism is an ideology that forgoes the more structural critiques of the status quo in favor of a more even footing when it comes to succeeding in the boardrooms of late capitalism. Lean In is the title of a TED talk, a best selling book, and now a non-profit organization created by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg’s brand of feminism has a lot of supporters but also some prominent critics. Elizabeth Bruenig argued in The New Republic that, “what makes life easier for any given woman high on the corporate ladder, might actually make life harder for women toiling near the bottom rungs.” Bruening points to Sandberg’s insistence that women openly and aggressively negotiate maternity leave but never advocates for a federally mandated universal maternity leave. Generous maternity leave packages for Facebook executives, Bruening shows, may even be in direct conflict with universal maternity leave because such a policy may make companies less interested in crafting their own –and for executives, more lavish– policies.
To define Brocialism one should look no further than a conversation between Laurie Penny and former Socialist Workers’ Party member Richard Seymour. Seymour writes:
My experience is that ‘brocialists’ don’t openly embrace patriarchy; they deny it’s a problem. Or they minimise it. They direct your attention elsewhere: you should be focusing on class. You’re being divisive. You’re just middle class (quelle horreur!). Or they attack a straw ‘feminism’ that is supposedly ‘bourgeois’ and has nothing to say about class or other axes of oppression. Or they just ignore it.
This class-first arrangement makes it easy (especially for cis white men) to position race, gender, or any other identity as a force for fragmentation and infighting rather than the beginning points of solidarity.
Brocialism and Lean In Feminism have a lot in common. They lack an intersectional analysis of structural oppressions (especially racism), which provides an enticingly straightforward permission to act out their respective programs. They are the kind of stunted progress that reads as “feasible” in national elections. This similarity is crucial because it lies at the heart of the subtle but important difference between what the campaigns say and the surrounding debates they engender: while there are indeed some substantive differences in policy and relevant past behavior between Clinton and Sanders, a vast majority of this election is about strategy, not policy.
Someone who sees hope in a Sanders’ presidency will point toward last month’s Bloomberg profile where Joel Stein makes it clear that Sanders understands that elections are a piece of larger social movements: That an election is merely the opportunity to construct a favorable Overton Window from which good policy can pass through. Clinton supporters will make a much different argument about America’s history and structural favoring of incrementalist change over punctuated, rapid change. Moreover, having a woman in the White House would also be a welcome, long-overdue revolution of a different sort. Just about every article left of center has kept within arms reach of these arguments. And while it is nice to see a popular discussion of strategy, at some level we know that strategy is all these candidates can promise because actual policies are subject to the most reactionary and corrupt Congress in history.
For the first time in a longtime, Democratic primary candidates are running to the left rather than the center, but instead of disagreeing about what candidates should do we are largely focused on how they should attempt to do anything. Even disagreements that are ostensibly about policies—expanding the ACA rather than “Medicare for all”, making colleges tuition-free instead of making sure students are debt-free, and so on—are actually arguments about strategy. They reflect different ways of dealing with Congress and more basic philosophic questions about how government should administer public services. Disagreements about strategy, I would argue, leave far less room for evidentiary claims. Showing how a strategy worked in a particular historical moment can always be nit-picked apart by pointing out contingencies and disagreeing about the past’s applicability to the present. When it comes to strategy it just sort of has to feel right.
Strategy is a difficult topic and one that most media outlets would rather ignore all together. Such a discussion would require we come to terms with the differences between the Obama ’08 candidacy and the last seven years of his presidency: the coordinated assault on Occupy encampments, drone warfare, and the fairly lukewarm reception (at the federal level) of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The frustrations surrounding these topics are then compounded by the fact that Congress would rather take another vote on defunding Planned Parenthood than put together a jobs bill or investigate the obvious and proven problems with local police forces.
Supporters also do not want to talk about strategy. Strategy talk requires that we accept all of the things above as truth and then figure out how to get around them. Ideological differences, on the other hand, are just a matter of positioning candidates in relation to all of these things. You can give Sanders undue credit for the last decades’ social movements or say that drone warfare was the best of many other worse options. While I do not think it is accurate to say Sanders and Clinton are ideological equivalents, I think the gulf between them is somewhat exaggerated. Let’s put it this way: when Sanders first announced his presidential run the New York Times noted that he and Clinton (while she was still a senator) “voted the same 93 percent of the time” but that “[t]he 31 times that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders disagreed happened to be on some the biggest issues of the day, including measures on continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an immigration reform bill and bank bailouts during the depths of the Great Recession.”
While they have substantive differences in foreign policy intervention and banking where Sanders’ is clearly more progressive than Clinton, I would not characterize all of their differences as ones where Sanders voted “to the left” of Clinton. For example, Sanders opposed a 2007 Immigration Reform bill out of fear of wage suppression while Clinton voted for it. Today they have nearly identical immigration platforms. I think that sums up their ideological differences nicely: that most of the time they are the same and when they differ it is usually (but not always) because a bill is not the correct strategy to achieve a shared goal.
Given this new dynamic where progressive strategy masquerading as ideological difference sits at the heart of the primary, media outlets must seek out narratives that sound somewhat familiar but can give shape to this new phenomenon. A whole army of writers have been all too ready to start answering the kinds of questions American leftists never thought would be uttered on television: What does being a socialist mean? How does feminism translate into policy? Are either of these candidates actually emblematic of the –isms that they are associated with?
Those answering with earnestness about specific policies or political theories have an unenviable task ahead of them because while they may have nuanced and well-thought-out arguments they are unavoidably associated with the immensely condescending missives from Gloria Steinem, Madeleine Albright, and hordes of Bernie Bros. Whereas Clinton relies on named elites to browbeat dissenters Sanders can count on thousands of nobodies to show up in twitter feeds and Facebook comment threads. One substantive difference here is that Clinton welcomes (and defends) Steinem and Albright while Sanders has recently told BernieBros “we don’t want that crap.”
Candidates’ public relationship to their most unsavory supporters, in the final analysis, is less important than the campaigns’ own strategies for producing supporters in the first place. Both seem ideally suited for attracting Lean In Feminists and Brocialists. Sydette Harry offers a compelling look at how the Hillary campaign, through its sloganeering, set itself up to gather uncritical fans of the Lean In variety since day one:
The conflation of being “Ready for Hillary” with feminist allegiance brings the worst problems of political fandom, racism, and poor civic awareness to the forefront. Secretary Clinton is portrayed as a fulfillment of a progressive checklist or schedule rather than an individual candidate.
Citizens have interests that they seek to fulfill through organizing together and selecting representatives, whereas fans have a kind of unconditional allegiance to a fairly static brand or personality. While Clinton is offered up as the kind of candidate that checks off all the right boxes for liberal progressivism, Sanders maintains a sort of monopoly on the citizen that wishes to live in something beyond capitalism and express that wish in a vote.
If a Clinton supporter is a Patriots fan, then a Sanders supporter is an American soccer fan that puts up with FIFA. They try to ignore the fact that he’s running within the Democratic Party and that he does not hold the kind of foreign policy positions that would comport with the level of isolationism that is typical of countries governed by democratic socialists. Sanders, like many Republican candidates, is casting himself as an outsider, which gives cynics permission to call themselves potential voters.
Amanda Hess recently wrote about Sanders’ supporters as having fan-like qualities as well. But while Harry demonstrates that Clintonian fandom is a way to hide “white feminism’s anti-black bias”, Hess argues that the Bernie Bro (a subset of the brocialist if we are keeping taxonomic score) is just like any fan sufficiently blinded by their excitement:
Everything that Bernie Bros have been accused of doing is something I’ve seen from One Directioners on Twitter—a group so displeased by an article I wrote three years ago that they invited me to sit on a chair upholstered with glass shards.
Hess ends her piece with a bit of advice that the Sanders campaign gave to their supporters on Reddit, which may also be instructive for the Left more generally: that the tendency to show devotion to a cause by first and foremost “delivering the sickest burns” to opponents is not the way to win people to your side.
Brocialism and Lean In Feminism are better understood as a kind of fandom than an ideology, although I think they are both. In other words, people who might accurately be branded a Brocialist or a Lean In Feminist may hold their views honestly and strongly (and would probably prefer to be called socialists and feminists, respectively), but much of their behavior is better understood from a fan studies perspective than any sort of political ideology. Fans make worlds out of superficial differences and build arguments to defend their beloved idea rather than use argumentation to arrive at some desirable end. Just as there is no conceivable argument in the world that could convince me that Star Wars is better than Star Trek, I am extremely skeptical of the possibility that Roqaya Chamseddine could convince Jessica Valenti, Amanda Marcotte, or Sady Doyle that Hillary Clinton is the wrong choice for the Democrats. Valenti, Marcotte, and Doyle are fans, just as Cedric Johnson will continue to defend Sanders in the face of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thorough rebuttals.
Herein lies the rub: I suspect most of the people writing about Sanders, Clinton, and the election in general, know that they are talking about (and sometimes, to) fans. And if they are talking about and to fans, they know that what they say will do little more than excite one side and infuriate the other and no genuine exchange of ideas will take place. With the exception of Harry, Hess, and a few others, the media has done more to reinforce the fan dynamic than try to draw us out into a more civic conversation. The way most arguments are structured in this election cycle one must either be a fan or some strange undecided beast that is equal parts ill-informed fence sitter and ineffectual elite.
Correcting this problem is not simple. Writers have been reinforcing the behavior they critique for a long time. Derrida lamented a similar dynamic in the French press around the turn of the new millennium:
Each book is a pedagogy aimed at forming its reader. The mass production that today inundate the press and publishing houses do not form their readers; they presuppose in a phantasmic and rudimentary fashion a reader who has already been programmed. They thus end up preformatting this very mediocre addressee whom they had postulated in advance.
Derrida is describing the way authors order their audiences into Brocialists and Lean In Feminists, by assuming that the people they disagree with are from one of these two camps. By attacking fans for not being citizens, we encourage people to act like fans so that they might be included in the conversation at all. Perhaps it is the fate of cities that foster intellectual and economic power to eventually manufacture the thing that it set out to lampoon and deconstruct in the first place. I hope we can break out of that cycle and start imagining new kinds of audiences. Coates and Chamseddine may be our only leading lights in this regard because they focus on arguing for or against issues rather than candidates. To the degree that they engage with fans, they do so as a means of further articulating an argument beyond any single candidate or election. More generally though, we need to foster audiences that cleave along new and more interesting lines of argument rather than these tired and pedantic ones that encourage us to dig in our heals and spout talking points. We’re better than that. Leave the bad faith arguments to the politicians.
David is on Twitter.
Header image source.