No, Republican Party entryism is not good praxis — A response to Benjamin Studebaker
Some months ago Benjamin Studebaker, former co-host of the What’s Left podcast, put out an article in which he attempted to argue for left-wing entryism into the Republican Party as a means of getting leftists elected in red states. Now I should point out that this article was written within days of the election, and so this came before the whole #StoptheSteal drama and the radical changes to the political landscape that came with it. Nonetheless it is in the interests of objective analysis that I have to take all developments since this when formulating my response.
Entryism as a tactic has a long and storied history. Simply put, entryism is the tactic by which a small group attempts to enter a larger organisation and spreads its own propaganda within the host organisation, criticises the its leadership, and attempts to recruit the host organisation’s membership into their own ranks. Originally devised by Leon Trotsky as a means of ascending to power by taking over major working class parties, it has since become the mainstay of most Trotskyist groups, usually in the long term since the days when Michel Pablo formulated the tactic of deep entryism. It has been attempted many times before in left-wing parties, and has never been successful. The best known case study is, of course, the attempts by Militant and other Trotskyist groups to infiltrate the Labour Party and turn it into a Marxist party. While Militant was successful in taking control of a local Labour Party and in electing three of its members as members of Parliament, they failed in their long-term goals of capturing the party itself, and ended up hardening the host party against the left, as evidenced by the Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s campaign to purge Militant from the party.
While you can at least envision the prospect of entryism into the Labour Party, there is a reason why no leftist would ever suggest entryism into a right-wing party, and contrary to what Studebaker says in his article it actually has very little to do with the cultural politics of right-wing parties. Ironically it is Poppy Coburn, a Tory activist writing on The Mallard, who explains the reason why entryism into the Tories is impossible, pointing out that Conservative Party policy is reliant on the patronage of Britain’s ultra-rich, and as such party policy is effectively dictated by a web of patronage networks comprising of free-market think tanks, billionaire donors and grandees, and well-connected business leaders, with the Conservative Campaign Headquarters clamping down on those who would deviate from Tory fiscal orthodoxy.
A similarly bleak situation exists within the Republican Party, which is directly linked with the ruling class of the US and is probably organised along similar lines. If the whole point is to spread your own ideas within the host organisation and recruit members from it, well then I have news for you: no Republican is going to want socialist politics. Their membership and even their leadership is convinced that Democrats as milquetoast as Joe Biden are planning to implement socialism and use this to justify their opposition to healthcare reform, raising the minimum wage and even stimulus relief. The simple fact is that although you may be able to persuade a Republican voter to support left policies, the active members of the party are never going to buy what it is you’re selling, and your attempts to subvert the Republican Party will only harden their views against the left by confirming in their mind the existence of a plot.
What Studebaker is suggesting is that leftists run in elections in red states as Republicans, which effectively necessitates an entryist strategy because you are trying to convince Republicans to vote for and support a left-wing agenda. Putting aside the fact that the GOP isn’t simply going to allow someone to win a primary on a left-wing agenda, how does he expect to argue for what is essentially the fever dream of the constantly online anti-woke leftist?
Studebaker begins by pointing out that left-wing capture of the Democratic Party will not change the makeup of the legislature in red states, which are dominated by Republicans. Usually the Democrats who run there, he says, run as quasi-Republicans (or, as we call them, the Blue Dog Democrats) and are as such not interested in left-wing policy. All of this is fine and good, but I think he misses that red states haven’t always been red states. In fact, there was a book by Thomas Frank called What’s the Matter With Kansas? which described how Kansas used to be a hotbed of left-wing populist politics, but has since become one of America’s most conservative states. That book also mentions that a Democrat named Kathleen Sebelius did become governor of Kansas by emphasising bread and butter economic issues like healthcare and school funding while avoiding contentious social issues, which had the effect of fracturing the Kansas GOP long enough for her to win (as opposed to doing what some more socially conservative leftists suggest and outright adopt the Republican position on social issues, which would have splintered the Kansas Democratic Party and ensured a GOP victory).
Next, he goes on to chastise red state Democratic voters in the following manner:
There’s also a problem with the red state Democratic base. Democratic voters in red states tend to resent the people who live around them. They don’t share the values of their neighbors, and they resent having to put up with them. Many red state Democrats would like to move to a blue city or college town, but can’t afford it. They are living in red states against their will, and they’re bitter about it. It’s understandable–you’d be bitter too if you had to live among people you despised because you didn’t have the capital to leave.
Well at least he can empathise with people who badly want to leave an intolerable living situation. To be honest, it must be frustrating being a Democrat and living in a state where your party is certain never to win any major victories (unless you’re in Georgia where a sea change seems to have taken place, in which case you must be very excited). One can’t help but become a defeatist, but unfortunately many of them probably do take it out on the average voter, which is the wrong way. That said, this is probably not all Democrats, and it seems like Ben’s red state Democrat is a deliberate caricature based on the Democrats he’s encountered on Twitter who called him a reactionary (calling for GOP entryism won’t do him any favours in that regard).
As part of this caricature, he claims (with neither evidence nor even anecdotes) that red state Democrats show up to political events boiling with rage and rudely condescending to people around them, scolding this imaginary red state Democrat by saying “red state citizens aren’t going to vote for Democrats who don’t like them, don’t share their values, and would leave if they could”. Evidently they were willing to vote Democrat in Georgia because Georgia (narrowly) voted for Joe Biden for President, and elected two Democrats — Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — to the US Senate. This was significant for two principal reasons. Firstly, their election fundamentally altered the balance of power in Washington by effectively handing control of the Senate to the Democrats. Secondly, those two Senators won their election by promising the stimulus checks Donald Trump failed to pass. Warnock himself ran ads that said if you vote for him, you will get $2,000.
Given that Ossoff and Warnock more or less agreed with the cultural politics of the Democratic Party at large, how do we explain why a red state that supposedly will not vote for Democrats who “don’t like them, don’t share their values, and would leave if they could” is now on the path to becoming a blue state? According to Studebaker’s version of events, this should not make sense, and that’s when it hits you that Studebaker is entirely divorced from reality. While the cartoonish corruption of the incumbent Republican Senators was a massive liability, what happened was that unlike Joe Biden or Donald Trump, Ossoff and Warnock made real material concerns that affect ordinary Georgians the most important part of their campaign messaging and promise to actually do something to improve the lives of voters, and in the Senate they have demonstrated themselves to be supportive of policies that do, having both voted for Covid relief and for a $15 minimum wage. What were the Republicans doing? Completely ignoring those economic issues and instead wasting their time painting their opponents as radical liberals and/or socialists, and opposing stimulus checks until the very last minute. Turns out that this time the voters weren’t just responding to the culture war.
Next he makes a rather bizarre and sweeping claim (again, with no evidence or examples):
The left media encourages this. It celebrates incivility and rage, because the people who pay for left-wing content are angry and want to feel validated. It’s a psychologically comforting product, but it doesn’t help politically. It feeds the narrative in red states that the left doesn’t actually like the voters.
It would help if Studebaker could define what he means by “the left media”. Does he mean outlets like Jacobin, or podcasts like Chapo Trap House, who actually do rail against bourgeois civility politics and espouse left politics? Or is he referring to what the right calls the left media, which is to say basically every centre-right liberal outlet that basically agrees with Republicans on economics but is liberal on culture issues? Whatever he meant, the media isn’t actually encouraging Democrats to be aggressive to Republicans. That seems to be more the case of individual personalities, and if I had to guess, most of these are Twitter personalities, because if there is one ironclad law in postmodern politics, it is that Twitter is the be all and end all of political discourse, regardless of the fact that a minority of the population actually uses it.
He also claims that the “coastal left” dominates the national media, a claim so laughable you’d think it came from Fox News or Newsmax, but then you forget that Benjamin Studebaker professes himself as some kind of leftist. If he is supposed to be a conservative leftist of sorts, then I hope being a conservative leftist isn’t just when you copy the rhetoric of the hard right in service of leftist sectarianism. Just like Fox News, he asserts that if you run as a Democrat, you will have to answer for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, when in reality most Democrats don’t really care about her, or they either humour her without really supporting her or openly attack her if they’re in a red state. He also says that Democrats don’t have a good funding network, citing the Indiana gubernatorial campaign. Zoom out of Indiana for a while and you notice that Democratic candidates such as Jaime Harrison (in the red state of South Carolina) have been far outraising their Republican rivals, and yet they still lost. How much money you’ve raised doesn’t seem to matter anymore, or at least not as much as it used to.
Supposedly associating with the Democratic Party doesn’t help you in red states, and in response to that, I hate to break it to you, but not every red state is Montana or Wyoming where Democrats can’t get much higher than 30% of the vote. Numerous red states are either thinning to blue (e.g. Texas) or have flipped blue and look set to become blue (Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania). Georgia itself debunks the whole idea that associating with the Democratic Party is a liability in a red state, and the reason why is that this time the Democrats actually ran on materially improving the lives of the electorate in some palpable way.
So why then do leftists need to run as Republicans? Well, according to Studebaker, it’s because your average red state voter simply hates anything to do with Democrats.
Many red state voters are suspicious of Democrats, because they think Democrats hate their way of life. But they are more willing to listen to Republicans. A Republican who speaks to their economic needs without threatening their values would be more compelling than the establishment Republicans.
I have news for you, the Republicans don’t much care for your way of life either, for that matter, the way of life of red state voters. They have been actively destroying lives with anti-worker, pro-business policies. The only reason it seems like one party cares about a “traditional” way of life and the other opposes it is because the battle lines of US politics themselves have been redrawn so that the focus of both parties remains on asinine culture wars. It’s because the Democrats have mostly failed to offer a programme that can materially improve the lives of voters that many red state voters simply default to Republicans, and that’s if they vote at all. But then the other thing that Studebaker misses is that the Republicans in red states have in fact been making it harder for people to vote. We saw this in Georgia during the 2018 midterms where the now current governor actively rigged his own election, failing to recuse himself from his old job of overseeing elections.
He also claims that Democratic voters are still basically attached to establishment figures like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Pete Buttigieg etc., and it honestly seems like he thinks Twitter is real life. In real life, most of the Democrats who are still unironic Obama/Clinton shills are older voters who respond more to personality politics. The younger voters, meanwhile, are more likely to respond to policy commitments, such as medicare for all, minimum wage, amnesty and whatnot. Many of these younger Democrats actually despise the Democratic establishment for frustrating this sort of progressive agenda, and Buttigieg is despised by them for rigging the Iowa caucus. I am not sure what reality Studebaker is living in, especially if he thinks Republican voters are mad at the elites in general. In reality Republicans are just mad at elite liberals. Right-wing elites, meanwhile, seldom receive the same level of hostility from them unless they openly opposed and worked against Donald Trump.
In this next passage he demonstrates a certain naivety about what Republican voters believe:
Of course, this strategy requires left-wing candidates to be tolerant and understanding of conservative and Christian cultural perspectives. For many even the idea of this is a deal-breaker. But there’s nothing inherently hateful or bigoted about liking small towns and traditional families. And the traditional family is threatened by the economic policies of establishment Republicans. People in red states want to get married, buy a house, and have kids, and these things cost money, and the Republican establishment is making it harder and harder for them to get this stuff. It’s okay to be straight and monogamous. It’s okay to like church weddings. It’s no big deal. It’s okay to have these preferences and to want to live in a traditional way. In America we shouldn’t stop good citizens from doing things their own way.
I’ll start by seeing I agree with him that there’s nothing wrong with being straight and monogamous, or church weddings, or to want to live in a small town and lead a traditional life (almost nobody outside Twitter is), and I give him credit for pointing out that what people actually want is to get married, buy a house and raise a family, and that it’s the Republican Party that is making it harder in red state. The problem with this argument is that this is only the good parts of what Republicans believe. They also believe that the Democrats are trying to flood the country with immigrants to gerrymander the electorate (often through caravans), that LGBT people shouldn’t have equal rights and constitute a cabal to indoctrinate your children, that the police killings of unarmed black people can be justified, and that the 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats.
And don’t let yourself be fooled into believing they care about freedom of speech or freedom of expression. When June Lapine (a.k.a. Shoe0nHead) went to Washington D.C. to interview Trump supporters, who I remind you are the majority in the party now, to ask them if they would defend the right to flag burning, you couldn’t even rely on them to say yes. Some of them are for the right to flag burning, but many wanted flag burning banned. Despite their protestations over cancel culture and how the Democrats supposedly are the threat to free speech (and indeed they are coming after freedom of speech), Republicans don’t mind freedom of speech being curtailed. They didn’t mind when Bush Jr. signed the Patriot Act into law and mandated gross violations of the US Constitution, they repeatedly call for the censorship of those that offend them, and in Kentucky, a Republican-dominated State Senate committee advanced a bill that would make it illegal to insult a police officer, meanwhile Republicans are complaining that Democrats want to ban Dr. Seuss!
In case you are still skeptical of his proposal, here he attempts to gaslight you.
If it’s more important to you to look down on these people, how badly do you want Medicare-For-All? Because if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be bi-partisan. There are going to have to be left-wing Democrats and left-wing Republicans. Otherwise, we’ll never get the senators. Even if we get the senators to pass Medicare-For-All, the Republicans will probably win an election before we’ve finished making the transition to single payer, and they’ll make a mess out of the system and blame us for that mess.
Not only is this a sleazy and depraved tactic from Studebaker, using our concerns for healthcare and using them to justify running under the banner of our class enemies, it’s also patently wrong. The idea that something needs bipartisan voting support in order to pass makes sense only if one party does not have full control of Washington. Meanwhile the Democrats do have full control of Washington, and although they took forever to get stimulus checks passed, they eventually did despite winning zero Republican votes. Not a single Republican politician voted to pass what meagre relief bill Biden was willing and able to get through, and all of them voted against raising the minimum wage despite Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton arguing for raising it. Based on this, what makes you think that the GOP is going to allow you to run around campaigning for medicare for all whilst running as a Republican? Why would they do that when they’re convinced that universal healthcare is socialism?
Besides, there are signs that left-wing efforts to takeover the Democratic Party at a local level are beginning to work. Just recently, a DSA-aligned progressive named Judith Whitmer was elected chair of the Nevada Democratic Party, and the DSA slate managed to win every seat that was contested in that election. This prompted the entire staff of the Nevada Democratic Party to quit, but not before raiding the coffers of course. What this shows you is that, if anything, you have a better chance as a leftist of taking other the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, but I doubt that Studebaker will countenance this strategy because for all his talk about how we need to swallow our pride and work with cultural conservatives, he is probably not going to extend the same treatment to those on the left who support more liberal social/cultural positions.
None of Studebaker’s lame arguments and excuses can alter the fact that the Republican party is so violently anti-leftist that you don’t have a hope in hell of running as a Republican while also espousing left-wing politics. If you want any shot at making entryism work in the GOP, that is going to have to require abandoning or watering down some of your positions in order to be acceptable as a candidate for their party, and at that point the question becomes how much of yourself are you willing to sell out? How much of conservative politics can you copy before at some point you may as well not be a leftist anymore? This is exactly the problem with the right-wing Democrats. They may not have run as Republicans, but they have assimilated into right-wing politics so extensively that they might as well have done, and all they have to do is swear loyalty to the god-emperor Trump.
Left-wing entryism into the Republican Party as a means of bringing about a left-wing agenda is a pipe dream, something that you could only come with by being so enmeshed into the online culture wars that you are willing to do anything to own the libs. It has no purchase outside of Studebaker and his sphere of constantly online leftists who define everything by its relation to wokeness, and will not be effective because the GOP itself will be too hostile to you to allow you to work your magic on it. At some point we should stop thinking about which parties to infiltrate and start thinking about reaching out to the working class in the real world.