An altercation late last year between a progressive journalist for Media Matters of America, who labeled The Young Turks (themselves progressives) as “Kremlin Cheerleaders” is symptomatic of the quintessential progressive struggle. The Young Turks had been opposed to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton throughout the primaries and part of the election. The bitter division between “mainstream” and radical activist progressives is nothing new. The tension we saw in 2016 is unexceptional. It is also not sustainable.
We saw these tensions boil over many times before; between second-wave feminists throughout the 60s and 70s ; between democrats in the 1970s; during the civil rights period; the gay rights period ; and it goes as far back as the women’s suffrage movement in the late 1800s .
The divide can be best summarized as this:
Radical progressives who value ideological purity view mainstreamists as impure, conceding, apologist hypocrites. A mainstreamist progressive, in the eyes of some radicals, is in some ways worse than a traditionalist who might be opposed to the radical’s views out of ignorance rather than hypocrisy.
Mainstream progressives often views radicals as using too-extreme language and techniques, thus slowing down progress for all. Mainstreamists as such view radical activists as ‘hurting their own cause’, so incapable of compromise and dialogue, that they could never actually achieve anything.
Yet progress actually happens because of interplay between the two. Radical activist progressives continue to transform the landscape. Mainstream progressives make deals, legislate, and transform mainstream public opinion. In one view, the radical activists make progress possible, and the mainstreamists make it a reality.
The tension between these two progressive camps is essential for progress. It is also a double-edged sword that can be a pitfall if we are not careful.