Bad Faith: The Limits of Political Imagination
What do we do now?
The opening of Bad Faith’s first episode tells the story of this year. It begins hopeful, fighting, with Bernie’s campaign for President and early success in the primaries. Then the story changes. Biden wins in South Carolina, and the establishment consolidates around him to deliver him Super Tuesday.
The pandemic hits. Millions of people lose their jobs. Bernie drops out and endorses Biden. The pandemic, and unemployment, worsen. Hundreds of thousands die. Wildfires choking out the sky signify the coming depth of the climate meltdown. George Floyd is murdered in Minneapolis, and as a giant protest movement emerges, police brutality and right-wing violence rise to meet it. And in the upcoming election, no good choices and nothing to feel good about. Listening to the intro, I felt the familiar roller-coaster of hope and despair that I’ve been riding since 2014. I felt myself ask that question again.
What do we do now?
With this question on the mind of thousands of former Bernie volunteers and dejected left milieu, the Bad Faith podcast brings forward two controversial left voices who refuse the compelling tide of pessimism in favor of a serious and critical discussion of tactics and strategy for the post-Bernie left, as well as current events in the political sphere.
From the podcast’s first episode, “The Story of Joe”:
Virgil Texas: “When [Bernie’s] campaign ended, as frankly, unfairly as it ended and as corruptly as it ended, everyone was left with nothing. And everyone was in their goddamn homes, alone.”
Briahna Joy Gray: “Yeah, and in their goddamn feelings.”
Texas: “And this is a time… when the basic bonds of capitalist society are dissolving — this is the time, more than ever, when we need a united left, one fist punching with one purpose.”
Gray: “And so in some ways, this podcast, we hope serves as a safe space, if you still. A place where we can all understand that we’re on the same team. Where we all share values, but where we can work out the more difficult thorny issues that do continue to divide the left. With the understanding that we’re all still pointed in the same direction.”
Among the shows ‘pros’ — its hosts. Briahna Joy Gray, Harvard-educated former press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign, and Virgil Texas, famous writer and podcaster on Chapo Trap House, have a genuinely entertaining rapport and seem enduringly committed to giving different tactics and ideas their due, even when they disagree. Despite their experience in politics, they refuse to cast themselves as ‘experts’ and instead bring on panelists to break down complex political and legislative topics to the audience, facilitated by particularly Gray’s interviewing prowess.
(Another pro — theme music. You’ll have to listen to know what I mean, but I think it’s great.)
I wholeheartedly believe that this ‘creative enterprise,’ as Texas calls it, is something the left desperately needs. We are facing questions, as Gray says “thorny issues” of strategy and tactics, and the only way these things can be addressed is with a commitment to taking these questions seriously, and attempting to have debates across organizations and tendencies.
For me, though, the experience is sometimes like watching “Last Week Tonight.” Every week, I listen to the podcast hosts approach what I believe to be a key conclusion for the left, and then veer off to a different topic.
Gray and Texas, as well-educated people familiar with electoral campaigns and the tactics it takes to win one, spend a great deal of time talking about what Biden’s campaign is doing wrong. (I particularly enjoyed when Texas, in a frustrated fever pitch, exclaimed that Biden’s staff should all be fired, having failed to send Biden into the debate with ideological ‘brass knuckles.’ I felt that.)
Usually, they come back to a central question: why is Biden’s campaign eschewing policy points that are widely popular among both Democrats and Republicans, like Medicare for All, when it would objectively be good for his campaign?
It seems, often, that the podcast’s hosts are themselves searching for the right answer. Frequently, they seem to fall into frustrated complaints that the Democratic Party is full of incompetent people, who are unable to realize that the ‘undecided moderate voter’ they’re designing their platform for is largely mythical, especially in comparison to the nearly endless well of disaffected voters who could be motivated by a genuinely galvanizing platform like the one Bernie Sanders’ had. The decision to choose the votes of a few thousand moderates over the millions of people who usually never vote because they don’t see any outcome that really benefits them is, from a mathematical perspective, absolutely confounding, and from a political perspective absolutely infuriating.
But the Democratic Party was far from incompetent when it was organizing to defeat Bernie Sanders in the primary. Gray and Texas observe as such, too. The podcast hosts, and their guests, struggle with this contradiction. The Democratic Party must be incompetent to ignore what is so obvious, and yet they cannot be incompetent, because of how effectively they sabotage left insurgents inside their ranks. It is clear from the Democrats’ record in the last two elections that they have far more interest in defeating Sanders-esque politics than they do in defeating the conservatism they claim to revile.
The resolution to this contradiction is outright mentioned by both podcast hosts on a few different occasions — that the Democratic Party is beholden to large donor interests, whose interests are primarily conservative. Medicare for All, despite boasting extremely high approval across the political spectrum, is untouchable for the Bidens of the Democratic Party by virtue of their dependence on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries and the influence of their lobbyists.
But this is where the conversation on Bad Faith has so far stopped — for me, it’s where my questions begin. What are the implications of the Democratic Party being so thoroughly beholden to corporate interests? What does it mean for people like Gray and Texas, who seem committed to the strategy of taking over the Democrats from within?
It’s a little logic puzzle. If the Democratic Party’s abysmal approach to politics is not just guided, but controlled by moneyed interests, then it stands to reason that it would be the job of a new generation of genuinely left-wing Democrats to excise that control from the party. Setting aside the question of whether that is possible — once you do, what are we left with? A party with no truly democratic structure, in which ‘membership’ means functionally nothing, where every committee and board is designed to include corporations and exclude regular people. What is this new class of left Democrats to do, when the mass of their voter base is prohibited from exerting influence in the party structure by design? Restructure the Democratic party at every level?
You might as well start from scratch.
Briahna Joy Gray and Virgil Texas are oft-reviled as “crazy lefties” for, to their credit, not unquestionably accepting the logic of the “lesser evil.” I’m reviled as a crazy leftie for believing that takeover of the Democratic Party is not impossible per se, but that it is a bankrupt strategy long-term. (There’s certainly a place to touch on the so-called ‘dirty break’ strategy, but it’s not this article. Sorry friends.)
Running independent candidates, with the intent of building a truly “left” party that is actually representative of and truly beholden to the kinds of disaffected voters Gray and Texas often talk about, has serious advantages. It allows us to build new and fighting relationships with labor. It allows us to “take the gloves off,” to fight with every weapon in our arsenal knowing the Democrats will try to defeat us, unencumbered by their internal methods of control. It allows us to break the barriers put up between working class people by partisan politics, and politicize around class lines.
I often think of Bad Faith’s recent episode on the Biden-Trump debate, in which the hosts exclaim that Biden did the worst possible thing you can do in a debate — he accepted his opponent’s framework. He fought on his enemy’s terrain instead of his own. I feel the same way about reforming the Democratic Party. Why use their broken framework, when we could build our own?
Just like I watch “Last Week Tonight” and come away screaming “It’s capitalism! It’s all capitalism’s fault! We need an end to the for-profit system!” at an uncaring John Oliver’s face on the screen, I frequently come away from Bad Faith within that same feeling. That there’s a better answer, that most people (even now on the left) are still not willing to take seriously.
Nevertheless. The American left is in a stage of youthful resurgence, sitting in the shadow of our current crises and dwarfed by its magnitude. All of the lessons from the socialist movements of the 20s, the 30s, the 60s, have to be relearned, and we don’t have much time — which is why I’m thankful that Bad Faith exists, why I enjoy it, and why I’m excited to keep listening. Ironically, when having more open and honest debate about tactics and strategy is so critical, we need more Bad Faith.