Every few months—sometimes for sinister and ideological reasons, sometimes for just plain ahistorical and dimwitted reasons—a pundit comes along who thinks they’ve cracked the DaVinci code of class politics. “What if,” they ask us (as if the question has not been asked countless times before), “left and right unite to take on the elites”? The phrasing of the question can vary, but it’s invariably some version of the same claptrap. This take has a particular superficial appeal: What if the right and left could set aside their seemingly insurmountable differences and unite to take on these mysterious “elites,” or “those in power”? What if, indeed! On its face, the proposal sounds like something everyone can get behind, and it’s effective RT-bait:
This line is used primarily, though not exclusively, by two groups: (1) milquetoast corporate liberals and centrists embodied by Third Way and other Wall Street-funded front groups attempting to push the Democratic party even farther toward the center than it already is; and (2) right-wing “populists” of varying tendencies (third positionists, producerists, outright fascists). I’ve detailed the problems with Group 1 elsewhere, but I’d like to take some time to discuss this trope’s popularity with Group 2 and why those on the left—or anyone genuinely concerned with the plight of the working class and racial justice, however they define themselves—should be wary of this second group.
From the start, and above all else, what’s important to know is that this trope, and the myriad ways of phrasing it, almost always means nothing. Saying “It’s not about right or left, it’s about power,” or some other variation, will always be a popular, smarmy applause line because such lines possess the mother’s milk of good ad copy: what hack writers call the “generically specific.” They seem specific enough to be meaningful, but are generic enough that listeners can project their own meaning onto the slogan. What is “left” and “right” in this scenario? What does “power” mean here? Who or what is “elite,” and what criteria distinguish them from the “non-elite”? Who knows? Just nod, turn off your brain, and accept whatever fascist or pro-corporate bullshit the speaker is about to jam down your throat.
Take a recent, deeply cynical version of this formulation spouted by one-note “anti-monopoly” producerist Matt Stoller. His Politico article arguing that the right and left can “work together” to “break up our big and slothful monopolies” is an object lesson in how those pushing reactionary politics can use ostensibly “populist” or vaguely left-wing argumentation to smuggle their agendas into mainstream consciousness. For the past few months, Hollywood writers, later joined by actors, have been on strike against the major TV and film studios, demanding better pay and staffing requirements, increased residuals, more control over how studios can use “artificial intelligence,” and less precarity overall. Stoller, for some bizarre reason, sees this as an opening for these writers and actors to partner with the likes of virulently anti-union Florida governor and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis to get one over on a single studio for which they share a superficially similar hatred.
His lead to the story sounds grand and noble: “There’s a new generation on the right and they think very differently about corporate power. When that right and the left come together, we will break up our big and slothful monopolies like Disney. DeSantis isn’t there yet, but it’s coming.”
Is it, though?
The piece suffers from—or, depending on how you look at it, thrives because of—that same aforementioned deliberate vagueness. “The GOP presidential candidate [DeSantis] and the striking Hollywood creatives may not agree on much,” Stoller writes, “but both are aggrieved by Disney’s raw use of power, and perhaps the broader dynamic of corporate monopolies in general.”
What? Is that really what’s happening here? To say both camps “are aggrieved by Disney’s raw use of power” may not be technically incorrect, but it’s a testament to how vague and squishy one must make one’s prognosis for it to apply to each side. Moreover, this is neither the left nor the right’s explicit reason for criticizing Disney; it’s Stoller’s. He goes on:
The rise of imperial Disney and its vast bargaining leverage has led to considerable fallout. One consequence is simply that Disney, like all giant streaming firms, has reduced its payout to writers, producers, directors, actors, movie theaters and suppliers. The strike consuming Hollywood is a reaction to this dynamic. Another is that the company has raised ticket prices at its theme parks for consumers and eliminated perks that longstanding Disney fans appreciated. A third is that the firm’s creative energy is dissipating, with an endless surfeit of Marvel movies. And fourth, it wields its cultural power in clumsy ways that angered and annoyed large swaths of the public, first by holding its fire on Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law and then by firmly opposing it.
All of these problems are happening now, because Disney, like other firms that have generated bipartisan backlash, such as Google and Facebook, is less a set of businesses trying to sell products than a giant financial institution organized around acquiring and maintaining market power. In other words, the fury directed at the House of Mouse isn’t about Disney, per se; it’s about the end of antitrust enforcement and regulations designed to keep markets open, a shift that’s happened across industries.
Stoller’s matter-of-fact synthesizing of these issues in the second paragraph belie how unconvincing the throughline he draws to connect them is. The left’s criticism of Disney isn’t, as Stoller suggests later, that they pump out cultural schlock (though some may be annoyed about having 19 Wasp and Antman movies, it’s not exactly an urgent priority of leftist politics at the moment). The left’s criticism of Disney is the same as it is for every corporation: that they don’t pay nearly enough in taxes, that they use their money and influence to lobby for pro-corporate policies that benefit them at our collective expense, and that they have too much political power. Leftists have no uniquely vested interest in despising Disney anymore than they would Comcast, Apple, AT&T, Netflix, Amazon, and other large media companies that push for horrible “trade deals,” abuse their workers, and are currently attempting to “starve” writers and actors on strike.
The right’s criticism, of course, has nothing to do with any of this. Aside from vague gestures about Disney being “too powerful,” the critique levied by demagogues like DeSantis’ is not that large corporations are deleterious per se, it’s that the ones who produce content seen as too feminist or gay or pro-trans need to be singled out and punished for doing so—for simply being “woke.” If Disney was focused on pumping out cultural products that aligned more closely with DeSantis’s reactionary weltanschauung, he, of course, would be significantly less concerned with Disney’s “raw use of power.”
What if DeSantis wanted to go after Wall Street banks that had what he viewed as too many Jewish executives—would this be another Stollerian opportunity for him to “join forces” with Wall Street critics like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and draw up a list of investment firms to break up that each side criticized for overlapping but totally different reasons? Singling out companies that right-wingers see as too pro-Black or pro-gay and then seeing if any of those same companies have also been criticized by Public Citizen or the Roosevelt Institute is not a mode of serious politics; it’s a way to boost the faux-populist credentials of racists and exterminationists. It serves no other functional purpose.
So what’s Stoller’s play here? His play, like the many purveyors of this hollow left-and-right-must-unite-against-the-“elites” mantra mentioned above, is to use the shallow pseudo-politics of “anti-monopolism”or “anti-elitism” to sell right-wingers like DeSantis, Josh Hawley, and other post-Trump right-wing “populists” to low-information, half-paying-attention progressives and independents who are seduced by the supposed ideological overlap. But political coalitions cannot be built on hate and discrimination, the right and left necessarily have different political goals, and the fact that they happen to dislike the same entity, person, or corporation is not evidence that they can band together like an Odd Couple Buddy Comedy. The reasons for this dislike actually matter a lot, because the reasons for dislike pave the road for what the policy solutions should be. The policy proposal Stoller offers in his piece, for example, is to simply “break up” Disney. But the left doesn’t want to just break up one corporation—because their content is too inclusive and queer—while leaving the rest untouched. What good would this do other than incentivize that corporation’s remaining competitors to produce more overtly racist and homophobic content?
The point is not to be precious about this or maintain some type of pure left ideological hygiene; the point is that, very often, when debates emerge about the potential for these supposed cross-ideological alliances, the terms of debate are deliberately muddied, and the end goal is to push the left further to the right, not the other way around. Words matter here, and those who promote this facile “right-left alliance” schlock are counting on the reader or listener not really paying much attention.
There are instances where a “right and left alliance” makes sense in a targeted and concrete context; such alliances are inherent to the political fabric and inner workings of an entity like the US Senate. Mike Lee and Rand Paul co-sponsoring a bill with Bernie Sanders to end the war in Yemen, for example, is a perfectly fine “cross-ideological” partnership, because the purpose of that partnership is the passing of a specific law with a specific scope. This is inherent to all lawmaking in a nominally democratically representative society: bringing people from across the political spectrum—left, center, right, liberal, libertarian—into the process of sponsoring bills or building voting coalitions is a functional necessity for a complex society in which the system of governance ostensibly relies on balancing the collected interests of that society’s respective constituencies. But voting blocs are not political coalitions, and supporting bills without throwing any vulnerable communities under the bus is a perfectly fine use of legislative power.
But what the Stollers and Greenwalds and Taibbis of the world are proposing isn’t this. It’s something much more cynical and calculated. It’s about softening up liberals, leftists, and independents to boilerplate Republicans like DeSantis in the hopes that their “anti-elite” bonafides will somehow translate to “anti-elite” policies, even though their campaigns are funded by the same billionaires and corporations (i.e. elites) as every other Republican. That they pay lip service to “populist” agendas, or target the occasional corporation for being too “woke,” is a far-right co-option tactic as old as the right itself. It’s not sincere, and this insincerity matters in the long term, despite all the hype over this supposed “new” new right we are sold every four years.
The next time a suspender-snapping pundit insists the “right and left” need to “unite” to take on “corruption” or “monopoly” or some other vague Bad Guy, ask specifics about how the right in question define “elite,” “power,” or “corruption.” You may very well get a rambling, unlettered mix of Hunter Biden’s laptop, welfare fraud, trans agenda, and Chinese COVID “globalist” cover-ups. What coalition can be built around this list of enemies isn’t clear, but whatever the end result will be, it won’t look progressive or populist in any meaningful sense.