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The Beto Woke Wars

The identitarian left has turned on Beto O'Rourke and things are getting ugly.
March 19, 2019
The Beto Woke Wars
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages)

Beto O’Rourke has become problematic.

O’Rourke was 2018’s progressive golden boy, with record breaking small-dollar fundraising, a viral defense of kneeling NFL players, and the love of Richard Linklater. His merch littered the enclaves of liberal America. From Coachella to Crown Heights, you were more likely to see a Beto tee or yard sign than you were many of the local pols. He wowed Ellen and Oprah and was every Gen X lefty magazine writer’s favorite subject.

The grassroots enthusiasm that resulted from this national fame and an opponent the left found nothing short of vampiric jolted his campaigns well past what most political prognosticators thought possible in Texas. But of course didn’t get him enough votes to actually win. So as the calendar turned to 2019, without a Cruzian foil, the prog-cognoscenti began to turn on their toe-headed boy.

As Jonathan Chait observed, if America was going to get its first socialist president, the Bernie bros were going to have to crush Beto.

The aspirational socialists and the intersectional liberals suddenly found themselves in league against a common enemy: a white male capitalist who once took a road-trip with a . . . Republican. So when Beto formally announced his campaign last week, what he may not have realized is that he was firing the first presidential shot in the left’s internecine Woke Wars. And in this battle he is on the wrong side of some of the very people who were his base in 2018: center-left journalists and power twitter users.

Not only have these social media influencers cooled to Betomania 2.0, but many turned out to be actively hostile, treating him more along the line of how they handle conservatives.

The first salvo was fired by a CNN reporter back in January who knocked him for using his “white male privilege” in spending a few weeks traveling through rural America while attempting to have actual conversations with voters. The premise of her article was that a woman with kids would never be given the latitude to take a similar listening vision quest. The New York Times echoed this take arguing that a fictional “Betsy O’Rourke’s” road trip would have not gotten the same gauzy treatment. The Daily Beast wrote on the “unbearable male privilege” of Beto’s road-trip, citing the “collective eye roll” a woman would receive for such a stunt. These arguments were corrected by a progressive podcast host, who said the authors misidentified the privilege as male when it was, in reality, “dripping with ruling class privilege.”

What was weird about these criticisms is that just about everyone did pretty much roll their eyes at Beto’s Excellent Adventure. It’s not clear that Beto’s listening tour was any better received than Hillary Clinton’s great “Scooby van” road trip of 2015, and I’d argue the reviews were markedly worse. And it wasn’t just the media reaction. Democratic primary voters seemed either turned off by Brooding Beto, or more excited by the launches of other candidates. Beto’s road trip coincided with a noticeable drop in polls of both activists and all Democratic voters— from about 13 percent to 5 percent on average. So the special status that the left was so worked up about didn’t really seem to exist in the first place.

Which gets to the core of one of Beto’s political problem in the primary: If he rises in the polls, it’s evidence of his privilege. Yet since his privilege is already baked in, a drop in the polls doesn’t dispel the critique. For Beto, the privilege attack is non-falsifiable.

Notice how the privilege war drums continued to bang against Mr. 5 Percent when he announced his campaign last week with a Vanity Fair cover shot that, by the by, certainly didn’t help dispel the critique. (Note to candidates: I can tell you from experience, skip the Liebovitz photo shoot, it’s a trap.)

The New York Times wrote a story—not an opinion piece, but a news article about the fact that Beto’s wife Amy didn’t speak in the campaign’s announcement video, a degrading critique that was similar to the one Donald Trump leveled against Ghazala Khan following her husband’s convention speech. The reporter wrote that Beto was “appearing to revel in his advantages as a white male” and pegged this claim to five tweets by left-wing twitter users, including one who explained that her view was that Beto “sucks shit.” (Incidentally, Amy was a frequent surrogate in Beto’s 2018 campaign and did give an interview to the Vanity Fair reporter, pushing back against these attacks.)

A Huffington Post reporter and MSNBC host tweeted that Beto’s claim that he’s “born to be in it”—which was either a brutal troll by the Vanity Fair cover artist or the most unaware part of their mash note—was something that Hillary Clinton couldn’t say. The Atlantic—also citing Beto’s privilege—said that he “launched his campaign like Trump.” It’s unclear how this analogy could possibly hold: Trump announced his campaign in front of a crowd of actors paid to show up to create the illusion of support and then delivered a bigoted stream-of-consciousness speech memorable mostly for its incoherence and claim that Mexico was sending rapists to America.

Politico summed up the Beto launch with an article citing the backlash to the Vanity Fair article and arguing that Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t get such treatment.

I can hear all the Republican flaks laughing over a drink at Bobby Van’s now: Welcome to the club, fella!

The same members of the media and the liberal twitter elite who did not find Beto’s privilege to be particularly problematic when he was trying to defeat a Hispanic Republican have suddenly discovered it now that he is challenging their ideological or identitarian preferences. And it’s hard to see a way out.

As his campaign progressed in Iowa over the weekend, Beto chose to kneel before the social(ist) justice warriors demands. First he slightly walked back his endorsement of capitalism, saying that while he is still a capitalist, he recognizes that it is a racist system.

And then he apologized for a joke that was offensive mostly in how hackneyed it was about how his wife has been raising their three kids, “sometimes with his help.”

“Not only will I not say that again, but I’ll be more thoughtful going forward in the way that I talk about our marriage, and also the way in which I acknowledge the truth of the criticism that I have enjoyed white privilege,” he said.

Beto’s political problem is that these apologias to the social justice left, earnest or not, will only reinforce the fact that there are intersectional candidates who offer the same message he does without the non-sectional baggage.

The question is, does this segment of the left and the media, which carries outsized influence in “The Narrative” have that much influence in elections? The best thing Beto has going for him is that there’s some evidence that they don’t. And that rank and file Democrats don’t actually care that much about the policing being done by the Very Online Left.

In 2018, for example, it seemed the only Democrat on Twitter who supported Andrew Cuomo was his feisty spokesperson—and my former sparring partner—Lis Smith. And yet Cuomo beat Cynthia Nixon by 30 points. Heck, he even carried Brooklyn by 24. Just yesterday, Beto announced that he brought in $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign—edging out Bernie for the out-of-the-gate fundraising lead. So at least 100,000 Democrats decided they didn’t care that much about lefty Twitter outrage.

At the end of the day, what matters in high-stakes political races is so simple and elemental that it’s amazing anyone ever loses sight of it: Does the candidate have the magic? Are they offering what voters are looking for in a given moment?

This is a question that is answered, at scale, in the real world. Not on Twitter, or the Mary Sue, or even in the pages of the Huffington Post. If a broad cross-section of Democrats like Beto, then he will be a tough out. If they don’t, his campaign will flame out.

Whatever the result of the Battle of Beto, the last few months have been an indication that the left’s woke wars are deeply pernicious and are in some ways undermining the progress being made in addressing the real structural advantages that white male candidates have enjoyed. That the social justice left will instead level these sorts of mindless, identitarian attacks even against an unequivocal ideological ally is discouraging because of what it signifies about what may be to come. For those attacks to be echoed so readily by mainstream news outlets is even more discouraging.

Because if the progressive hive mind can turn on Beto, then conservatives who appreciate the life-affirming parts of identity politics, want to champion diverse voices, and hope to find common ground with sensible liberals against the nationalist, white-grievance right are unlikely to be treated any better.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.