There are long-standing, reasonable arguments about why socialism is terrible. I don’t think they hold up, but these arguments are not what animates criticism of left challenges to the Democratic Party establishment. Instead we are treated to a barrage of evil, inane gossip, and not just from right-wingers—from liberals, and self-identified progressives as well. The recent, victorious campaign of Julia Salazar for the Democratic nomination to a New York State Senate seat is a classic illustration of how neoliberalism rolls in the face of criticism from the left.
Salazar ran against incumbent Senator Martin Dilan, a garden-variety party hack. That is not in dispute. Any serious liberal had to welcome such a change. But in New York as elsewhere, a panoply of leftyish groups and voices exist not to further reformist ideals, but to guard the establishment’s left flank—especially from groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), fresh on the heels of the dramatic upset of party leader Joe Crowley staged by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Instead of a debate about New York state politics, we got a microscopic survey of Salazar’s background, up to and including genealogical analysis.
The good news is that the establishment seems to be incapable of mounting substantive policy arguments against radical proposals. Sometimes, you can find such critiques coming from liberal writers, such as Paul Krugman, but their wonky arguments are not the weapons of first choice for party stalwarts and their pundit allies. Instead, as the Salazar case shows, we get personal attacks, usually larded with accusations of some type of bigotry: in the New York primary, we got intimations that both Salazar and the DSA-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon are some kind of anti-Semite.
The inescapable fact is that in politics, such tactics are always deployed in bad faith. The supreme example of such hypocrisy was the rush to defend a straight-up liar, President William Clinton, from his clearly corrupt adversaries, such as that paragon of marital fidelity, Newt Gingrich. Of course. We defend our guys, they defend theirs. The Chapo dude is right: those are the rules. What ought to be objectionable, though it is not new, is seeing such tactics used in intra-party competition. We have more important programmatic disputes to hash out.
The good news is that the establishment seems to be incapable of mounting substantive policy arguments against radical proposals.
Politics is war, but with a minimum of shooting. It should be easy to weigh the serial atrocities of this and previous administrations against most of the alleged personal deficiencies of their critics. But the anti-Bernie/Zephyr/Alexandria/Julia forces have narrower, conflicting agendas. Most broadly, the Democratic Party establishment gives every sign that it’s committed to a de facto rule-or-ruin policy. Its apparatchiks prefer Republican supremacy over losing control of the party to insurgent reformers. And one tentacle of the establishment has a special venom to contribute: militant defense of the apartheid Israeli state. This was one of the unmistakable lead themes in the political and journalistic establishment’s attack on Salazar.
Probably one of the stupidest attacks on Salazar came from outside the New York Democratic Party’s formal braintrust, albeit in a trusted organ of consensus liberal thinking in Salazar’s home district—the New York Times. In a column by the Times’s self-appointed enforcer of legitimate young Jewish opinion, Bari Weiss, Salazar was branded a “post-truth” candidate, largely because she’d recently veered away from an earlier posture of uncritical support for Israel. Stripped of Weiss’s trademark agitprop thuggery, the column was arguing a completely anodyne point: that Salazar had evolved from one thing to another in her early youth.
Hey, I went to college intending to join the Reserve Officers Training Corps. Just two years later, I had gone Yippee! and supported campus agitation to abolish the program, if not its building. I underwent a shift on Israel as well, one of the turns that my Poale Zion parents never quite accepted. Lots of kids enter college as Jewish or Christian and end up Buddhist. That any such a shift away from a candidate’s youthful allegiances is deemed fodder for a drive-by gotcha attack attests to the profoundly inane character of this brand of reverse-virtue signaling.
In Salazar’s case, her journey up from Zionism was extensively documented in still another risible hit piece published in Tablet magazine. One can almost sense the author’s combination of sorrow and rage that a potentially invaluable tool of Israeli hasbara had left the reservation to support Palestinian rights.
Salazar, as it happened, also transitioned from Christianity to Judaism, but her avowals of faith evidently did not pass muster at New York magazine. For all you goyim, I can inform you that there are indeed formal procedures to become a certified Jew, but these are not necessarily observed by other Jews. In fact, I daresay there are many in Israel and Brooklyn who would not consider anyone on the Hunan pork-besotted staffs of Tablet or New York magazine to be Jewish. We really need to get over ourselves. Does anyone really doubt that this gnat-straining dispute would ever have come up if Salazar had remained a staunch defender of the Jewish state?
Democratic Party apparatchiks prefer Republican supremacy over losing control of the party to insurgent reformers.
Another point of controversy emerged out of a Jacobin interview in which Salazar suggested she came to the United States as an immigrant, though in fact she was born in Florida. Score one for the Trivial Pursuit contestants? Uh, no. She did admit to being born in the United States at a relatively early point in the campaign.
In general, her “immigrant family” credentials are supportable, as is her experience as a child in what became a single parent family. In the latter regard, there were hoots about a trust fund left by her estranged father, but that has no bearing on how rich her upbringing was, nor on her subsequent economic burdens. The salient background condition here is that Salazar’s parents divorced—and divorce is a leading cause of economic difficulty, if not poverty, for women and children left behind.
Perhaps the strongest criticism from Salazar’s identity-policing detractors involve Salazar’s claims about her family’s Sephardic Jewish ancestry. She says her father talked about it. So does her mother. Her estranged, right-wing brother says he did not. A Colombian genealogist weighed in, evidently at the request of another unfriendly relative, but she didn’t debunk any Jewish claims. She only elaborated Salazar’s Catholic heritage. Any lineage proceeding from Salazar all the way back to suppressed Jewish Sephardim in Europe or elsewhere remains shrouded in the mists of time.
My view is that families like to speculate about novel origins; witness the brouhaha around Senator Elizabeth Warren’s professed Native American heritage. I’d like to imagine I come from a long line of Talmudic scholars, though in truth I have no idea. None of my relatives other than immigrant grandparents made it out of the Pale before the Holocaust. So maybe Julia’s dad talked about her family’s long-ago ties to the Sephardim, and maybe he didn’t. The larger point here is that the question has precisely zero substantive bearing on the candidate’s credentials as a public servant.
And this, mind you, was arguably the strongest establishment blow landed against Salazar. Much of the other scattershot criticism of the candidate just didn’t parse. Consider this, also from the lofty heights of the Times:
Still, other details of Ms. Salazar’s biography seem elided as well. On her campaign website, Ms. Salazar noted that she “supported herself through Columbia University as a nanny,” though she acknowledged that she did not graduate from the university and does not intend to.
What does the question of whether Salazar graduated from Columbia have to do with whether she also did time as a nanny? In the earliest version of the Salazar campaign website I could find, there is no claim she graduated from Columbia, only that she attended—which she did.
In war—did I mention, this is war?—it does pay to be pragmatic. In These Times writer Jessica Stites wrote a smart bit on Facebook about the merits for Democratic Socialists of America and other insurgents with like-minded ambitions to be ready for the sort of shitstorm that befell Salazar, inconsequential as it proved to be. But in the heat of this sort of inane internecine brawling, the effort to push back against pitched assaults on this or that facet of a candidate’s biography becomes more important than a robust defense of Medicare For All—so much the worse for the electorate, and chronic recidivist wonks like me.
So the short-term lessons of Salazar’s tour through the campaign meat grinder are crude, and simple: Assume the worst of attacks. Assume the background will be fly-specked. They will go low. Have your story on Israel ready, no matter what it is. Never ever respond to a question about Israel in a sound-bite.
I would not argue that personal shortcomings are always irrelevant. There is a point at which personal corruption rises to gross political malfeasance. The Cuomo regime is a case in point. But Salazar’s campaign decidedly was not.
I would still vote for Cuomo in a general election, just as it was right, back in the 1991 Louisiana governor’s race, to prefer corrupt Democratic jailbird Edwin Edwards to erstwhile Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke. At some level, party interests supersede corruption. The same principle applies in primaries with respect to political ideals and the personal character of politicians. The old adage about legislating as sausage-craft also pertains to the makeup of our aspiring political leaders: you don’t want to watch it being made.
All of which serves to make the many pearl-clutching outbursts among defenders of the Democratic status quo in the Salazar case all the more ridiculous. Here’s how Salazar’s sins were summarized in another attack-y piece in City and State:
“And Salazar has deployed her facts to gain maximum political advantage.”
If this upsets you, you really need to find a new hobby.