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Lessons for The Left: Stop Being Too Pure

A series reflecting on what's going so wrong for the left right now; and how they can fix it.

James Moorely | @JamesMorley91

They did it! They removed the foul-mouthed, orange-faced, whipped-hair monstrosity from the White House. The American electorate did their duty and restored order to a disorderly government. The left won.

Or did they?

Trump may have been defeated, but the Republicans in America are still a dominant political force and the blue wave turned out to be nothing more than a blue splutter. The Democrats failed to secure a majority in the senate (the upper chamber of congress made up of two representatives from each state) and the best they can hope for is a 50/50 split, their majority in the House of Representatives (the lower chamber of congress, made up of representatives from each congressional district) got cut down faster than the Amazon rainforest, and Republicans still control more state houses and legislatures. 

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In the UK, even though a pandemic has claimed lives and jobs, and has been spectacularly mismanaged, the Conservatives are still going strong. Their Labour adversaries (if you can call the bumbling collective around Keir Starmer that) cannot pull out a significant lead, and even trailing in some polls such as POLITICO.  

The left is flagging, and the right is holding ground. Why?

There is no simple answer, but this series of articles aims to offer suggestions for how the left can improve its electoral chances by taking lessons from the right.

Lesson 1: Don’t be so puritanical

So, let’s start with the biggie, the issue that has made the left a weak, almost unelectable, force in modern, western politics: the left is too pure.

Now, I don’t mean the left is made up of care bears who love hugs. We are not talking about emotional purity, but about ideological, podium bashing, screaming for heads to roll purity. The left has developed a love for witch hunts, proving people wrong, and calling people out. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but they are only hurting themselves. The left has developed a laundry list of characteristics and political positions that it looks for in candidates and it requires a tick in every box before it gets behind a candidate properly. The right has no such qualms.

Trump is the poster child for the right’s flexibility. In 2016 he won 81% of the white evangelical vote and current exit polls suggest he got around 75% in this election. These are the salt of the earth, die hard, real America Republicans. They are the family values voters who yearn for the days of good Christian communities separate from the big city elites. They voted for Trump: the swearing, philandering, big dealing, three times married New Yorker. Trump was the antithesis of everything they believed in and did they abandon him? No, not a chance. They put in lawn signs, and they went door to door, and called him the greatest Christian ever, despite his inability to quote a single bible verse. Why? Because he was willing to speak out against abortion and pack the courts with pro-life judges.

Trump pictured with his Vice President Mike Pence (image from Unsplash)

The right isn’t puritanical anymore. They are a flexible collective that can move into line behind anyone who can help them achieve their broader goals. The right can go from anti-Russia to pro-Russia in an instant if that’s what it takes to get their guy in power. The left on the other hand are puritanical to a fault: any divergence is unacceptable, anyone who steps just an inch out of line is beyond reproach. This is going to cause them irreparable harm. 

In Nevada (a state Biden won) the Democrat running for senate, Chris Janicek, was involved in a text scandal that had the state Democrats pull support and call for his resignation from the ticket. What was his crime? He made a joke about a female staffer, texting to others that she could do with getting laid. Not an acceptable joke to make about a female colleague, and worthy of an apology. However, thanks to the Democrats pulling their support he lost the state by 30 points. So now the left must stomach a split senate instead of a majority because a man who makes tasteless jokes was deemed to be a poor candidate for good public service. Again, this is not to say that the behaviour is acceptable, but it should be forgivable. 

In the other extreme, Republicans ran an accused paedophile in Alabama and he only lost by two points, that’s how dedicated the right are to securing their majority in the House of Representatives. It is completely immoral to promote the election of someone who poses a risk to children, and absolutely the wrong thing to do. The right seems scarily capable of uniting behind such awful people, who have done unforgivable things; so surely the left can unite behind flawed but redeemable people who have actually apologised for their transgressions, and still be morally superior?

The problem is clear in the UK as well. Boris Johnson and his fellow conservatives stand behind Priti Patel despite her being found to have breached ministerial code, but Rebecca Long-Bailey gets fired from the shadow cabinet for sharing an article that contained anti-semitic information about Israel that she did not repeat or claim she agreed with. Labour decided to turn on their own like some sort of purging cult, whereas the Conservatives plough forward, soaking up wins from a British right that cares only about Brexit and can overlook their mistakes. If the Conservatives can be satisfied by an apology from someone like Priti Patel, why couldn’t Labour have been just as satisfied with an apology from Long-Bailey and a commitment to be more responsible about what information she shares?

The left will be responsible for its own demise if it continues to chip away at the pool of good candidates in the name of personal or ideological purity. It has to learn to accept personal flaws in the name of victory and has to put its full support behind candidates that don’t always meet its exceptionally high standards. It’s time for utility to trump purity. Standing by your convictions is admirable, but not when it means your opponents are granted decades of power that does real harm to real people. Losing the purity will help win the elections.

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