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Principles vs. Strategies


If the left is going to win meaningful change, we need long term sustainability, mutual support and a welcoming environment that encourages an ever-larger base.  We also need to help prevent exhaustion, burnout and unnecessary division within those who are already part of the left.  The logic is simple: we need to grow our base and keep those who are committed from burning out.

It turns out that preventing burnout and unnecessary division is largely within our immediate control – meaning one small change in how we think about left principles and strategies can have huge positive consequences in winning real change.  And this is something we can do now, fully within our control.

Conceptually, we need to think about left visionary principles and strategies separately.  Far too often, those of us on the left conflate the two and call into question another person’s intentions and principles just because we might debate or disagree on a particular strategy.  Principles and strategies are not the same.  Principles guide our vision of where we want to go.  Strategies are how we think we can best get there.  There are different ways of getting to the same place.  Furthermore, it is often hard to know in advance which strategy is best, thus having diverse strategies can be advantageous.

If we share the same vision but disagree on strategy, we should not conflate the two.  Doing so usually results in divisive infighting, rather than constructive debates.

This is endemic on the left and leads to personal attacks, distrust and division. It’s exhausting, it’s unwelcoming, and it is causing burnout. If we want to win, it needs to stop.

On Twitter, for example, it is pervasive.  Of course, the medium is partly to blame.  Twitter is not built for constructive dialogue and it’s often a nasty, hostile environment full of bots and trolls with no intention of constructive dialogue.  This toxic environment inherently breeds defensiveness, one-upism and meaningless name calling.  And it’s easy to get sucked in, no matter how well-intentioned we are.

But the left must do better.  At least if we want to grow our movements and win real change.

It feels unfair to pick one exchange out of thousands, but this recent exchange about Bernie Sanders appearing on Fox News between two progressives who I respect is particularly instructive:

Here there is no doubt that Intercept columnist, Mehdi Hasan is making a strategic argument and a straightforward one at that: boycott and isolate Fox News because it is the crudest network in its racist/statist propaganda.

Here is The Nation writer Aaron Maté’s response:

Aaron argues correctly that all major networks share in the racist/US supremacist propaganda model.

Usually, when people call to boycott a company because it is the vilest or crudest in its industry it’s not because they are blind to the fact that all the other companies share blame, rather it’s a strategic decision to highlight and isolate one particular company in order to send a message.  Otherwise, there would either never be boycotts or practically everything would have to be boycotted.  Neither of those seems very reasonable.

And of course, Mehdi already knows this about other networks and agrees (below), but the conversation devolves largely into defensive bickering rather than a constructive conversation about strategy:

This is the sort of bickering on the left that turns people off.  And this exchange is probably one of the more respectful and tame ones, but nonetheless, it shows how conflating principles (both Mehdi and Aaron agree Fox News is “a propaganda channel for both the president & white nationalists”) with strategies (boycott Fox News vs. boycott all major networks vs. use any avenue possible to expand one’s reach) leads to unnecessary division or worse, personal attacks. 

Notice all three strategies have validity to them. Arguing one over the other doesn’t make one’s commitment to left principles any more or less valid.  

In another similar example, Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert calls out both Glen Greenwald and Bernie Sanders for appearing on Fox News:

In this exchange, the comments just pile on. One user chimes in: “What a gigantic fraud that guy is”.  Another states: “completely unprincipled”.

Ironically, Glenn is the one making the initial critique of Fox News, but because of a strategic decision (trying to reach Fox News’ audience), his and Sanders’ principles are being called into question.  This is what happens when principles and strategies are conflated.  If we conceptually separate the two, we can agree on principles and have a healthier discussion about strategy.

It’s important to note that these types of comments are not from right-wing trolls, but users who would likely all agree that Fox News is “a propaganda channel for both the president & white nationalists”.  That means we on the left can immediately change our tune and create a less toxic environment.

Discussing, debating or even disagreeing about strategy is healthy and should be done regularly and openly.  But doing so respectfully, separate from personal attacks on others’ principles or intentions will help the long-term sustainability of winning meaningful change.  

This is especially difficult to do on Twitter, but we shouldn’t hold ourselves to any less standard on that particular platform.  If we are serious about winning a better world, creating a more welcoming and less toxic environment on and off Twitter will ultimately benefit our movement.

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