Yet More On Tents

Last week Ashley Spinks wrote that “Big Tents are for Circuses.”  I’m not sure I agree (and wrote as much) but she touched on an issue that I think is much more important than whether or not the Democratic Party should be a bigger and more open place with more compromises and ideological messiness.  I think the tent should be bigger, but it’s a certain hypocrisy that Ashley references that I think is the real wedge dividing the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party is divided among those who prioritize social issues and those who prioritize economic issues.  I tend to identify with both, but when presented with a choice I choose the former.  Every single time.  That’s in part because I, for whatever reason, am more passionate about social justice issues than about most others.  Ashley, however, touches briefly on the more practical nature of my inclination when she writes that:

I think it’s lazy to frame “social issues” and economic issues as fundamentally at odds; as an either-or conundrum. Primarily because social issues so often have an economic component.

The people I listen to and read about who identify strongly with those issues recognize economic justice as a fundamental part of social justice and, though they may be more inclined to compromise in favor of prison reform or equal pay or reproductive rights, they value both aspects as halves of that whole.  I can’t say the same of politicians and thinkers who identify more strongly with economic progressivism.

An exchange between Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic and Cedric Johnson of Jacobin following Coates’s critique of Bernie Sanders’s socialist presidential run encapsulates the difference perfectly.  Johnson writes that:

Coates’s latest attack on Sanders, and willingness to join the chorus of red-baiters, has convinced me that his particular brand of antiracism does more political harm than good, further mystifying the actual forces at play and the real battle lines that divide our world.

Coates responds:

This not the language of debate. It is the vocabulary of compliance. In this way, a strong and important disagreement on the left becomes something darker. Critiquing the policies of a presidential candidate constitutes an “attack.” A call for intersectional radicalism is “red-baiting.” And the argument for reparations does “more political harm than good.” 

The feeling is not mutual. I think Johnson’s ideas originate not in some diabolical plot, but in an honest and deeply held concern for the plundered peoples of the world. Whatever their origin, there is much in Johnson’s response worthy of study, and much more which all who hope for struggle across the manufactured line of race might learn from. Johnson’s distillation of the Readjuster movement, his emphasis on the value of the postal service and public-sector jobs, and his insistence on telling a broader story of housing and segregation add considerable value to the present conversation. His insistence that airing arguments to the contrary is harmful does not.

Economic justice is a large and important component of any movement for social justice but the reverse is equally true.  Feminist and anti-racist radicals are often on the front lines of debates over tax policy, health care, and social welfare programs of all types.  More traditional democratic socialist and class or labor-oriented progressives are an important part of the conversation if they allow space for there to be one.  Too often they don’t.  None of this is to say that there isn’t an intolerant streak in other wings of the progressive coalition – there is – but among prominent intellectuals, publications, activists, and politicians in the various camps, the contrast is stark.

I have no problem with a big tent, but I’d rather have a small tent in which each person under the cover recognizes the importance of the others than a big tent simply for its own sake.