The 2016 Democratic primary exposed a long-brewing schism in the liberal order. Supporters of Bernie Sanders were fed up with the status quo and sought to tear it apart, while Hillary Clinton’s cohort preached a more pragmatic progressivism. The best hope of the Clintonites was to cast Sanders supporters as not just unreasonably radical but also a bit sexist and racist too — hence the “Bernie bro,” their caricature of a childish white man who just can’t bear the thought of a female president.
The “Bernie bros” were exactly the people center-left Democrats were describing when they first said “alt-left.” They didn’t just mean the “antifa,” or anti-fascists. That’s an amorphous enough term already, encompassing both the black bloc and other groups devoted to denying neo-Nazis a public platform but less inclined to set limousines on fire. They didn’t even just mean those who fit the technical definition of socialist, communist or anarchist. They meant anyone who wanted to push the political conversation beyond the boundaries of the 2016 Democratic Party platform: anyone who advocated for universal health care, free college or a $15 minimum wage.
Heather Heyer, according to that definition, belonged to the alt-left.
It’s easy to see why “alt-left” was the perfect phrase for the job Clinton Democrats set out to accomplish. Because it sounded so much like “alt-right,” it made Sanders fans seem too extreme to stomach — even violent. It also made them seem more sexist (that explains their lack of enthusiasm for Clinton, those using the term might say), or racist (now we know why they’re disillusioned with Barack Obama, or why they won’t come around to Kamala Harris, they’d argue).
And it’s not as though the far left doesn’t do the same sort of labeling of Clintonite Democrats — calling them “centrists” as a veiled insult even when their views are measurably more progressive than the average American’s, or deeming them “neoliberal” to establish distance between them and what hardcore leftists see as the true liberal cause.
The “alt-left” label, as it turns out, is much more insidious. It creates a false equivalence at the extremes and plays into racists’ hands. White supremacists want the far left to look more sexist and racist the same way center-left Democrats want them to — it gives them a foil. Of course they greeted Trump’s Tuesday proclamation with glee: While “alt-right” is designed to make neo-Nazis look more mainstream, “alt-left” is designed to make their enemies look less so. White nationalists had already pulled off a remarkable trick by bringing a moniker that obscured their hateful worldview into the national lexicon. And they’ve achieved another coup by snatching “alt-left” away from the Democrats and pushing it so hard that it eventually made its way out of the president’s mouth.
This is far from the first time a clever center-left coinage has flipped sides — remember when “fake news” was a cry of liberal outrage against the glut of online conspiracy theories that culminated in a gunman traveling to a D.C. pizzeria to take out a nonexistent Clinton-connected child sex ring?
The left is eating itself alive. “Fake news” at least was designed to delegitimize a dangerous enemy. The center-left’s use of “alt-left” demonizes people who, when it comes down to it, should be their allies. There’s a real debate to had about health care, free college and the $15 minimum wage. It’s happening now, and it will continue to happen through 2018 and beyond. But the right way to have that debate has never been by playing semantic tricks to score points. It’s by being honest about the policies both we and those we disagree with stand for. We’ve just learned how perilous the alternative can be.