A Rare Case of Left-Progressives Doing What Centrists Accuse them of Doing All the Time

by Neil H. Buchanan

Frequent readers of Dorf on Law will surely have noticed that I have a pet peeve regarding bothsidesism.  There is a particular a sub-variant of that phenomenon that I will now dub "bothfringesism," which is where the mainstream press, along with center-right through center-left Democrats, says that the progressive fringe on the left is merely a mirror image of the Gaetz/Greene/Massie/whoever MAGA fringe on the right.  "Oh look at those Trumpist crazies!  But of course, the Democrats have 'the Squad,' so there's that."

This is the ordinary, dreary stuff of cable news chat shows, repeating themes exemplified by an MSNBC segment yesterday in which conservative radio host (and NeverTrumper) Charlie Sykes said: "There is illiberalism on the left; DeSantis represents it on the right."  That tired claim about widespread leftist illiberalism is and always has been utter, laughable nonsense.

In the realm of elected politicians, the difference is even more stark.  The attempts to paint Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Pramila Jayapal, and company as being just as unhinged as the pro-Trump House insurrectionists has always been a matter of Hippie Punching.  Mainstream liberals who have no good reason to reject leftism try to convince themselves that people who have genuine principles are nothing more than a cabal of unshaven Phish fans.

More to the point, those weak-kneed centrists are desperately signaling their virtue to the other people in Polite Society: "Look, I might be a liberal, but I'm not one of them!"  All of the Democratic pile-ons against Ilhan Omar, or mischaracterizing "defund the police," fairly reek of the panic of liberals who deep down know that they lack the courage of any convictions other than wanting to be seen as Very Serious People.

This is especially obvious when one looks at the seriousness with which the members of the Progressive Caucus carry on their work.  They do their homework, ask pointed questions during hearings, and have a purpose in life that -- unlike Ted Cruz's wannabe acolytes (as if anyone would want to be Ted Cruz) -- is not about being a Twitter troll.  Compare that to, say, Lauren Boebert's straight-up lying about missing the debt ceiling vote.  There is no bothsides nature to this at all.

Even so, there are loons out there, and not all of them gravitate toward Planet Trump.  Because it is so rare, I took special note last week when I started to watch a Youtube video from a channel that is clearly leftist but that offered an unmistakable reminder that there truly is vapid lefty commentary out there.  Transcribing and dissecting the segment is painful but necessary.

There is no reason to identify the source, because it is not my purpose to start a tiff with anyone, personal or otherwise.  And the clip that I watched did not even identify the anchorperson who spoke these words:

Preliminary reporting on the deal that Joe Biden made with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on the debt ceiling indicates that Democrats are giving everything away and Republicans will get everything they want, including spending caps on government programs that help ordinary Americans, a continued increase in defense spending, and of course a special project for Joe Manchin that has to do with a natural gas pipeline that would run through this state.

Now, while objective people can look at the deal and look at the provisions and clearly understand that Republicans are [scoffing] getting everything they want, that's not what you're gonna hear from corporate media.

After quoting talk-show host Joe Scarborough and noting correctly that he was a pro-austerity Republican when he was in Congress, the host then says that "of course [Scarborough] looks at this deal and says like 'Thank God, the world economy and my precious stock portfolio isn't about to crash because they failed to reach a deal on the debt ceiling.'"  The anchor then turned to her co-anchor and discussed a reasonable complaint about the mainstream press's elevation of bipartisanship as a goal in and of itself, which is another matter that I have discussed at great length here and elsewhere.

That angry rant was posted under the title: "MSNBC's Joe Scarborough GUSHES Over Republican Leader McCarthy After Debt Ceiling Deal."  Again, I agree with many of the criticisms of Biden's strategy regarding the debt ceiling, most definitely including its unfortunate creation of a halo over the empty head of the hapless McCarthy.  My contempt for Joe Manchin also knows few bounds -- his votes to confirm federal judges being the most important qualifier.  A deal that is supposedly about the debt ceiling became a deal about debt -- which is not at all connected to the debt ceiling -- and then somehow became the vehicle to fast-track a gas pipeline?  Outrage is the appropriate response.

I can also understand that people on the left (and to be clear, I am one of them) care deeply about budget cuts aimed at the most vulnerable among us.  Moreover, that the Republicans even hold a majority in the House is its own outrage, deriving as it does from gerrymandering and voter suppression.

But still.  But still.  But still.

Saying that Republicans are getting "everything they want" -- and saying it twice -- takes the notion of being "detached from reality" and moves it into the realm of Lewis Carroll's most creative storytelling.  There is no reason to deny that the Republicans got virtually nothing that they wanted but then to emphasize that they still got something, and what they wanted was to harm poor people.  The Republicans' fully partisan bill that Biden successfully rejected tried to put work requirements on all safety-net programs, but the final deal imposed such rules only for people up to age 54 in the SNAP program, and Biden succeeded in expanding that program in other ways.

Do I wish that Biden had been able to get a deal that did not cut any spending?  Of course.  I also wish that he would have listened to Professor Dorf and me and not even started down this road.  But he did, and what he ended up with was amazingly non-terrible -- terrible for the people who will be harmed, but non-terrible because it spared so many others, and because even the people who were harmed by the SNAP change would have been harmed even more tragically if Republicans had succeeded in imposing their proposed 22 percent across-the-board cuts for non-defense discretionary spending.  The crazies in the House were even saying that the original bill was too weak for their tastes.

Equally inexplicable was the claim that people like Scarborough were happy about a debt ceiling bill because "my precious stock portfolio isn't about to crash," which is ... a bad reason to want a good outcome, I guess?  The hope all along was that even Republicans would not want a debt ceiling-inspired crash precisely because we could count on their being at least rational enough to understand that their own self-interest happened to align with the greater good (for once).  Not having a regular pension, all of my retirement savings are of necessity invested in financial assets, so I am pretty darned happy that I might still be able to retire someday, unless delusional extremists somehow convince themselves that crashing the economy is good because rich people would hate it.  The adage, "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face," is both entirely apt here yet wholly inadequate.

To be clear, I happen to have seen a few other segments on the Youtube channel from which I drew the transcript above, and in general the content is interesting and informative, produced by intense people whose hearts and minds are in the right places.  This is an instance, however, in which my heart sank as I watched this obviously sincere person commit the very error that the pearl-clutchers in the mainstream press and the Democratic establishment accuse all of us on the left of committing every day.

I am still no fan of Joe Biden's political instincts or his ideological priors.  I am still convinced that his larger strategy in the recent debt ceiling battle was a mistake.  I am, however, amazed that anyone could take a look at what he accomplished -- negating the vast majority of the extreme demands from the Republican hostage-takers -- and say that Republicans got everything that they wanted or that the only reason to like the outcome is because it prevented a stock market crash.

No, bothfringesism is not generally a thing, but it does occasionally happen, unfortunately.  Being well-meaning can cross the line into becoming self-negating far too easily.