Reflections on the Messy Left

By Jess Kung

Illustration by Marissa Espiritu

Illustration by Marissa Espiritu

I’m in the car with my friend, Taylor. It’s almost 2 a.m. We’ve been working on a project all day and we’re finally going home. It’s quiet, the nice kind of quiet you settle into as your brain gets ready to shut off. But there’s something I can’t stop thinking about, and as we turn on to the 405, I let it tumble out of my mouth.

“Taylor, do you have any thoughts about ‘the dirtbag left?’”

Even though we’re tired, even though the question is vague, I can see her mind engage. She turns to briefly make eye contact and grips the wheel a little tighter.

“I mean, I think about bad leftists, right? They’re definitely tankies, and people who gate-keep and say people aren’t radical enough,” she says. There’s a fire in her voice. “People who are like, ‘Oh, you haven’t read this or that Marxist theory,’ but like, it’s so much to learn and it’s classist to expect people to read all that academic theory.”

I ask if she’s heard that term before, and she says she hasn’t.

“But I think I’ve met him,” she says. She is very sure this is a man.

***

Of all the languages to learn, those from the Millennial and Post-Millennial progressives are probably among the most ridiculous. They draw from both Marxist theory and Weird Twitter, constantly shifting between standards of decorum and textual yelling contained by 280 characters.

“Tankie” represents an ideology worlds away from “Republican” or “Democrat.” The term was derived from the tanks the Soviets sent to quell revolts in Communist countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It’s used to describe communists who defend the violence and authoritarianism of Stalinism. It’s a pejorative; I’ve mostly seen it used by anarchists.

It actually doesn’t have much to do with the “Dirtbag Left,” who are self identified in a slightly ironic, self-aware way. The term might already be passé, as it came into use with the rise of the podcast “Chapo Trap House” during the 2016 election.

Hosted by a group of mostly white guys who connected on Twitter, the show became popular for its humor and disdain for anyone (left or right) who leaned into the respectability and decorum of their “vulgar populism.” They don’t condone Stalinism (as far as I know), but they excessively dunk on out-of-touch, centrist Democrats (there is a pretty good argument that most Democrats fit that description).

If you’re in any vaguely progressive online spaces, you might feel their influence without knowing who they are. They were definitely at the forefront of leftist critique of liberals and the Democratic Party, both a cause and effect of the discourse around the last presidential election.

In our infinitely complex political landscape, there’s a perception that the left allows infighting and individual agendas to dilute their political power, while the right is more effective because they can withstand minor ideological differences.

This manifests primarily in our government and policymakers. For instance, in order to get into office, many politicians sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to oppose all efforts to increase taxes. According to their website, “the pledge has become practically required for Republicans seeking office, and is a necessity for Democrats running in Republican districts.”

But “the Left” and “the Right” are more than Republican and Democrat. There are the Democratic Socialists, Libertarians and Tea Partiers who have power, and many more factions who don’t want to be part of the system at all. Compromise becomes the messiest part. 

The plight of being “Terminally Online” is that you’re in a bubble made out of a million smaller bubbles. The other day, about a third of my timeline was commenting on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s “bin raccoon” boyfriend. But if anyone I interacted with in real life knew about it, they certainly weren’t talking about it. I’m sure the Jordan Peterson/Slavoj Žižek debate made almost no waves in the mainstream, the same way that some people know nothing about the conflict between James Charles and the cast of “It.”

Twitter influences current events much more directly than YouTube or Instagram (although the argument can be made that we’ve underestimated the potential political power of Instagram). Twitter is still the platform of choice for most writers and journalists, in addition to the President of the United States.

Online communities are powerful ways to connect shared ideas. But they’re also spaces in which everyone rehashes the same arguments ad infinitum.

Even writing this is exhausting, because this piece has almost certainly been done before.

***

In the car, Taylor and I are still talking ― and she had gotten really fired up.

“It’s so common for people to fetishize being revolutionary,” she says. “Especially college or high school guys ― angry young men who want to prove themselves. I’ve been that young man, but social change is enacted through legislature and the little things — putting in hours, talking and calling people and writing and rewriting.”

For Taylor, radical action is necessary sometimes, but she believes it’s just a supplement to rewriting laws, getting into office, and building coalitions. But not everyone agrees with this. There are popular arguments for revolution, for withdrawing from the system, for moving closer to centrism. It’s a mess.

As we pass the glow of the oil refinery, I blink back drowsiness and ask her if I should identify her as a socialist.

“Democratic Socialist,” she says. “Because I believe in socialism, but like, not everybody wants to be a leader, right? I see a lot of people, especially older millennials, who identify as Democratic Socialists because they identified with Bernie. But then they avoid jury duty and complain about paying their taxes, and it’s like, dude, that’s your civic duty. I would love to be called to jury duty.”

I’m sure that this article will give a political science major a stress ulcer. But not everyone is reading political texts or learning postmodern theory; they’re getting their understanding of politics from the internet. It’s good to open a book, talk to a person about their ideas every now and again, but don’t let that consume all of your time. If you’re even slightly left-of-center, you’re gonna have to start deciding which of the hundreds of Democratic presidential candidates you identify with real soon.