Decoding Leftist “Infighting”

In the past few days, a familiar meta-debate has emerged online about the promise and perils of feuds between liberals and socialists, which I think is laid out neatly in two tweets:

Anyone even remotely acquainted with my social media presence should be able to guess pretty quickly which side of this dispute I come down on. If socialists stood in a position of political advantage, it might make sense to err on the side of rapprochement; but we are still the minority partner in a coalition where it is liberalism, which controls every major left institution and which has systematically captured all of our levers of power, that has the luxury of offering concessions and proposing compromises. If socialists could rely on the good faith of our allies, it might make sense to err on the side of risk and vulnerability; but among those who are actually in power, this alliance is an absolute farce, and liberals will never hesitate to destroy socialism given the opportunity.
If your response to all of this is that socialists should nevertheless abandon its defenses and expose itself to the bad faith of liberal attack and co-option for the sake of (potentially) (temporarily) defeating an ascendant right, that may very well be a just and wise position – but it is not a socialist position. It is the position that we should be willing to sacrifice socialism for the sake of defeating Republicans, and that is how it should be understood.
Again: nobody is on Twitter
Having said all of this, here I want to return to a point that evidently bears repeating: Nobody Is On Twitter. Only about 20% of U.S. adults ever use it. Only about 40% use Twitter to keep up with the news. And slightly less than half identify as politically liberal. Ultimately, probably less than 5% of Americans are even potentially aware of and have a stake in left Twitter infighting – and in practice, only a small fraction of those users will happen to be aware of any particular feud. Some other basic numbers worth considering: two-thirds of social media users say that they simply ignore disagreeable political views, and only 16% say that they’ve ever actually changed any of their views because of something they’ve seen or read on social media. Only some of those users, of course, will actually change their opinion for the worse.
In terms of direct impacts, there’s just no empirical reason to believe that left Twitter infighting has any significant and adverse impact on American politics whatsoever.
Twitter thinkfluencers don't matter
Occasionally, one variation on this concern maintains that while the direct impacts may be trivial, left infighting ends up warping the view of our media thinkfluencers, which has the enormous second-order effect of skewing mass media coverage. Even on its own terms, this theory dramatically exaggerates the influence of political media: for example, at its record-breaking peak, today’s top-performing liberal-left cable news show, Rachel Maddow’s, had a viewership of .8% of the US population. (Only .2% were between 25 and 54.)
But more to the point, concerns about the ability of internet leftists to appreciably influence the political trajectory of corporate media coverage – particularly at the national level – misunderstands both the means of ideological production and the leverage that we have in that system.
Within the propaganda model laid out by Chomsky and Hermann, “flak” – which “refers to negative responses to a media statement or program” – is only one of multiple factors that shape media coverage, and probably the least consequential. Far more important are the editorial preferences and imperatives of media corporate owners and advertisers; the business and political actors that provide media with access and information; and the broader ideological currents of fear and resentment that define capitalism’s sociopolitical narratives. These factors will always tend to drown out the personal and social inclinations of particular journalists and columnists; individual actors have to conform to the system that gives them a platform in the first place, and if they don’t, they’ll lose it.
Additionally, Chomsky and Hermann add that it is only if

flak is produced on a large scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources, [that] it can be both uncomfortable and costly to the media…The ability to produce flak, and especially flak that is costly and threatening, is related to power.

To overcome the various corporate, structural, and ideological imperatives that dictate political media, flak has to somehow match the enormous socioeconomic forces behind them. Historically, as the authors explain, this has usually meant deliberate, coordinated, “corporate community funded” PR campaigns. Large industries and donors like the Koch Brothers prop up giant think tanks and pour millions of dollars into various astroturfing and lobbying efforts. For example, right-wing “watchdog” group Accuracy In Media has received

funding mainly from large corporations and the wealthy heirs and foundations of the corporate system. At least eight seperate oil companies were contributors…The function of AIM is to harass the media and put pressure on them to follow the corporate agenda and a hard-line, right-wing policy. It presses the media to join more enthusiastically in Red-scare band-wagons, and attacks them for alleged deficiencies whenever they fail to toe the line on foreign policy. It conditions the media to expect trouble (and cost increases) for violenting right-wing standards of bias.

This is the sort of “harassment” and conflict that actually shapes media outcomes on a national scale: not the banal and mostly inevitable interpersonal feuds among a few dozen rivals, but the enormous, full-time, fully-staffed, lavishly funded pressure campaigns of entire industries.
As far as I can tell, concerns about leftist social media infighting absolutely never emerge from a substantiated demonstration of significant impacts on political outcomes. Instead, what seems to be happening is that people see various disputes or rivalries going on around them that they want to end, and then backfill a grand rationale for why ending them is necessary and important. As I’ve noted before, I suspect that a lot of this just comes from a place of conflict aversion – of people being viscerally uncomfortable with interpersonal conflict for all kinds of completely understandable reasons. I also think that some of this just comes from a basic satisfaction with the political status quo: if you’re ultimately okay with the current balance of power between socialists and liberals, you’ll see attempts to upset it as misguided and needlessly antagonistic.
None of this, in any case, probably matters in the grand scheme of things. The personal and political conflicts we see online may be stupid, or unjust, or unhealthy to the participants, but it aggrandizes them beyond any possible justification to imagine that they’re a serious obstacle to the fights for socialism and against fascism. And while socialists may be wasting their time policing and engaging in metadebates over these disputes, that probably doesn’t matter either.
About Carl Beijer 12 Articles
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.