It’s possible that you’re familiar with the so-called “dirtbag left.” It’s equally possible that you clicked on this article out of sheer confusion.
For those who aren’t familiar with the terminology, a quick Wikipedia search will describe the group as “a term for a mode of left-wing politics that eschews civility in order to convey a socialist or left-wing populist message using subversive vulgarity”. The term is widely associated with a group of podcasts, most notably Chapo Trap House but also Red Scare and Cum Town.
Consider these podcasts as the manifestation of deep Twitter — crass jokes, irony beneath several layers of vocal fry, all interspersed with lifestyle hot-takes that would make your mother have a heart attack.
The group has earned scorn from liberal media. A 2019 article in Jezebel compares Red Scare’s particular brand of performative irony to legitimately hateful neo-Nazi propaganda, arguing that their “it’s the same kind of fig-leaf hipster irony and showy apathy hiding a heaving, scabrous mass of genuine cruelty.” The New York Times published a similarly scathing critique in March, 2020, quoting Amanda Marcotte: “Chapo Trap House,’ the entire Dirtbag Left, have tapped that male privilege of intimidating people into assuming you’re cool.
The same New York Times article describes a live podcast recording in Iowa City from the perspective of what would appear to be a genuinely repulsed reporter —”In blurring occasionally violent humor, jovial community meetups and radical politics, they [the dirtbag left] are the Tea Party reborn for progressives, and for their fans the appeal is in a bawdy offensive balance to cautious mainstream liberal politics.”
This quote leads into another common critique of the dirtbag left: they’re ruining the Democratic Party. On March 9, 2020, Vox published an article on Bernie Bros, which specifically claims that dirtbag left subgroups within the Sanders campaign made it impossible for Bernie to be a unifying candidate, writing:
“there’s no equivalent to Chapo and the other dirtbag left outlets on the other side of the Democratic Party’s internal divide — a closely allied media outlet that has elevated online abuse of its opponents into a political value. Fairly or not, the prominence of these Sanders supporters and their many social media supporters has shaped the way that media and Democratic Party elites think about the campaign — and maybe even affected some ordinary voters”
There’s a lot to unpack from all of these arguments. First, regarding the vulgarity: in a 2016 article for Current Affairs, Amber A’Lee Frost — the Chapo co-host who coined the term “dirt-bag left” — writes:
“The left will always need its journals and polemic and academic writing, but there are times when it is both right and proper to terrify the bourgeoisie with your own feralness. Reclaiming vulgarity from the Trumps of the world is imperative because if we do not embrace the profane now and again, we will find ourselves handicapped by our own civility. Vulgarity is the language of the people, and so it should be among the grammars of the left, just as it has been historically, to wield righteously against the corrupt and the powerful. We cannot cede vulgarity to the vulgarians; collegial intellectuals will always be niche, but class war need not be.”
Now, I’m not going to leap to the defense of this group of podcasters, nor can I speak to the harm that their words may cause. However, I will say that I think there’s something to A’Lee Frost’s argument. Now more than ever, there’s an intense sense of alienation that has permeated through American society. Speaking from personal experience, it’s impossible to approach any discussion about politics without some mixture of rage and apathy. I’m tired of masking my political allegiances behind a veil of civility — hell, even trying to contain myself for this article is exhausting.
So, when a group of people give voice to the thoughts that are, at some perverse subconscious level, bouncing around your head, it offers reprieve. Rather than being told that we have to constantly contain ourselves, the dirtbag left offers an outlet for those who have reached their boiling point. Similarly to the French Revolution-era libelles that A’Lee Frost references in her article, the rise of the dirtbag left could be a symbol of the impending revolution — an honest signifier of growing class conflict and political disillusionment.
Second, regarding the supposed threat to the Democratic Party. Once again, I want to make my allegiances clear — I do believe that there are significant structural differences between a Trump and Biden candidacy, and that a vote for Biden is a vote for meaningful environmental, immigration and medical policies. But I question whether a threat to the Democratic Party is an entirely bad thing. In a country that’s political axis has been pushed so far right of center that our idea of “left” is essentially centrist, why is it so bad that radicalized youth are questioning the DNC and seeking alternatives? It’s not as though the Democratic Party is the party of communists — no matter what Trump’s polls would have you believe.
I’m not saying that you have to go and listen to some dirtbag left podcasts. However, I do think there’s more to the genre than edgelords trying to get a rise out of market liberals. More than anything, the rise of the dirtbag left is a sign of ever-increasing alienation, and only time will tell where that alienation leads.
Mira Kudva Driskell is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Portrait of a Gen Z on Fire runs alternate Mondays this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.