I, The Political Gamer, have logged on, and am once again acutely aware of the need for me to do leftism. If you’re also an Always Online Leftist, then you may have read Jeet Heer’s recent article at The New Republic. In “The Dirtbag Left and the Problem of Dominance Politics” Heer argues that self-identified “dirtbag leftists”, best exemplified through the Chapo Trap House hosts, are using insult comedy as a form of “dominance politics” in a socialist version of the same tactics used by alt-righters and Donald Trump. Heer says that while Trump may have been able to pave a path to the White House with bad-mouthing and bullying, the same can’t work for Chapo and other leftists because they’re not just fighting against the Republicans, but also trying to build a coalition with the Democrats. As Heer tells it, we can’t form such a coalition if we’re spending all our time mudslinging. He also has an obtuse second reason that throwing insults at the right doesn’t work as political praxis, but we’ll come back to that. While Heer is more respectful and well-meaning than most pundits who’ve tried to criticise the hard left, this is a bad take.
Chapo is not an outlet above reproach. If you want to identify damaging elements coming from their corner of the internet, then you can justifiably go in on their use of gendered insults like “bitch”, their sexual assault jokes, their kink-shaming, or their recurring tactic of insults peoples’ looks. It’s important to remember that those last two aren’t bad because we should feel all that sorry for the ghoulish targets of their mockery like William F. Buckley or Ross Douthat, but because such humour ends up not just damaging direct targets but also innocent people on the periphery who happen to share characteristics with them. However, most of the loud Chapo commentary out there is either misusing these arguments or pulling out hasty, poorly-considered digs at the podcast instead of any rigorous analysis. Heer’s column is not an exception. There are more or less three kinds of prepackaged Chapo takedown that you can unbox at home for that instant online own:
1. The Chapo Boys, in their criticism of Democrats, and therefore Clinton, have proven that they are a bunch of sexist Bernie-bros, rendering their entire argument moot.
2. Bad manners are the same as bad ethics and a few guys being rude on a podcast is more offensive to me than America’s everyday practice of wide-scale human neglect.
3. I fundamentally don’t understand socialism but here are 1,500 words on it.
As you can see, Heer has opted for a Category 3 Chapo Rebuttal, but his mistakes are not just in his dubious claims about socialism but also in misclassifying Chapo’s activist tactics. Heer uses a quote from John Semley’s article “The Rise of the Internet’s ‘Dirtbag Left’” to draw a comparison between dirtbag leftists and the alt-right:
“It’s a movement that uses many of the tactics of the online alt-right — humour, memes, Twitter trolling and open animosity — while remaining committed to progressive leftist ideology,”
This quote made a little more sense in Semley’s article where he goes into more depth about the comedic style of both the alt-right and dirtbag left, but even there it draws a loose association between the two and taken out of context, it’s an unreasonably broad way to categorise a political strategy. Political humour has never belonged solely to the right, let alone to one specific modern right enclave, I don’t think I even need to give examples to show why this idea is wrong, and open animosity has been a part of anti-establishment politics as far back as the history of anti-establishment politics goes. It’s not that you can’t draw some parallels between the alt-right and the left, but touchstones as vague as “comedy” or “annoying people on social media” aren’t going to get you anywhere.
In this article, Heer also fails to explore the dirtbag left’s strategic approach beyond their humour. Sure, you could make a case that Trump, the alt-right, and the dirtbag left are attempting to make political strides through irreverent, humorous, and biting jabs at their opponents but these are not their only tactics. While none of Trump’s arguments for why he should be President were passable at a glance, even he couldn’t be described as just a bunch of insult comedy in a suit. He also made a point of addressing the worries of everyday Americans and that contrasted against the political institutions that seemed to care less and less every day about them. A segment of the voter base even perceived Trump’s rambling, unhinged speeches as having an element of honesty because they were so ad-lib. Meanwhile, the alt-right were not just using insult comedy but also organised harassment campaigns, launched silos of propaganda aimed at people within their movement, and had a penchant for analysis of society, politics, media, and history that was entirely rooted in pseudo-intellectualism.
This is about so much more than just the comedy, and whatever you might want to say about the dirtbag left’s humour, they have other strategies which exist independent of that humour and contextualise it. That humour comes along with discussion and an intellectual challenge to existing power structures. It’s why there are Chapo episodes with guests like Adam Curtis, Jeremy Scahill, and Roqayah Chamseddine. Chapo is not a series of one-hour comedy specials but contains consistent and coherent discussion of societal sicknesses and broken worldviews that you won’t find from Trump or the alt-right. While Trump and the alt-right frequently turned to humour to smooth over a lack of ideological substance, the hard left often does the opposite, using humour to reinforce reasoned sociological argument. Not all irreverent political humour is the same: Context matters.
These are the problems with Heer’s analysis of recent strategies in left and right niches, so what are the problems with his argument that this style of criticism can’t work for the dirtbag left? Let’s start with Heer’s initial argument:
“Chapo is fighting a two-front war, one against the Republicans and another against moderate Democrats. […] To redeploy the alt-right style of unruly jokes against alt-right figures like Cernovich or Jones makes a certain amount of sense. […] But the humor becomes very different when used against people of the same party, since the goal then is not to defeat an opposing side but dominate people who are part of your political coalition”.
This one doesn’t make an incredible amount of sense, even within the framework that Heer has set up in the article. If railing against the party of the same political stripe as you is a battle doomed to fail, then why, as Heer demonstrates earlier in the article, did it work for Trump? There’s another bit of faulty reasoning in here which continues into Heer’s other argument, the one we skipped over earlier:
“Socialism isn’t just about equality for its own sake, but also the lived experience of fraternity and sorority, of politics as the work of brothers and sisters joined together to make a better world”.
Socialist activism involves the solidarity of a great number of people. Solidarity is both necessary to bring about equality in society and the natural product of doing that effectively. The enemy of socialism is a system of subjugation maintained by the few that is too big to be combated by any individual or even many disorganised individuals and so must be combated by an alliance of many co-operating individuals, exchanging experiences and knowledge. Here, we see fraternity and sorority, but not arbitrarily; the kind of alliances that form among hard-left activists have a particular shape and purpose, they’re the organising of the underclass against the elite.
Heer comes to conclude that the dirtbag left must work with the Democrats because they’re part of the same “political coalition” but the point people like the Chapo hosts are making is that that coalition only exists as smoke and mirrors. The Democrats benefit from the impression of a left vs. right framework where underclass leftists must support them because the Democrats are ostensibly the leftist party, even though they’re also working against that underclass’s interests.
Heer, like many journalists, mistakenly only views the political map of his country in terms of left vs. right instead of the more defining dichotomy of the elite vs. the underclass. Through the latter lens, we see there is obviously no coalition between the dirtbag left who represent the underclass and their common Democrat targets who represent the elite. To unite in the socialist sense that Heer talks about is to unite against the targets of outlets like Chapo, not with them.
Indeed, one of the messages that Chapo has remained dogged in conveying is that the large majority of politicians and pundits in America, from the right or the left, are comically disconnected from the lives of the average American. They do not share the “lived experience” with the underclass that Heer refers to. If these pundits and centre-leftists represent the few then not only is coalition-building with them non-essential but discrediting these individuals by making them and their views look ridiculous paves the way for the politics of the many.
Heer’s concept of political progress growing from the underclass forming respect and coalitions with status quo figures and institutions also has a poor historical track record. Breakthroughs in black rights, feminism, gay rights, etc. were not made through being careful not to offend authority but often by loud and forceful declaration to that authority of what they were doing wrong. Even in more recent times, the socialist support behind Bernie Sanders in the U.S. or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK has not hinged on respect for and coalition with political centrists and media, but on a ferocious challenge to their authority. As much as dyed-in-the-wool Democrats would like to make you believe they’re the only leftist game in town, they’re not. One of the points outlets like Chapo make is that many who vote Democrat are only voting for centrist Democrats because they don’t have a more left-wing option and that there is a base of people not motivated to political action at all. With Sanders and Corbyn, we’ve seen that when a socialist option was offered, the degree of support behind them was far greater than the pundit class theorised.
It is important to remember that these challenges to power do not and cannot consist of “dominance” politics as Heer suggests. Trump can practise dominance as he is coming from a place of power and when he insults others that power weighs down on them. The underclass does not have power to oppress others with; a New York Times columnist or a Democratic representative simply doesn’t have the same oppression to fear from being called out on a podcast that they would from being called out on the national stage by a presidential candidate. Again, Heer misses this point because he misses the entire dichotomy of power which underlies these interactions.
For many U.S. socialists, coalition with the Democrats though bending to a centrist worldview is not something they can afford. It means an ineffectual push to guarantee them even the basic living conditions a human being deserves to survive, and unsurprisingly, this is not the world most people want to live in. The coalition Heer talks about is possible, but only from one side, which brings us back around to Menaker’s original point. The Democrats have not secured the quality of life they told the underclass that they would, and the only productive way forwards is for them to listen to the hard left and yield to their requests. Thanks for reading.