Saving the Political Left From Itself
At the worst possible moment, elitism and social-justice warriors are undermining the credibility of progressive politics.
The 2016 film Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice subjected viewers to a moment that is surely among the dumbest in modern motion-picture history. Batman, convinced that Superman poses an existential threat to Earth, subdues the Man of Steel and is about to deliver the fatal blow. At the last moment, the pair realize haphazardly that both their beloved mothers are named Martha, thus discovering their shared humanity. This, mind you, after a painfully long and predictable fight sequence that could have been avoided by ten seconds of dialogue. Talk about manufacturing unnecessary conflict. (By the way, in case you’re wondering why I didn’t include a spoiler alert, it’s because I wanted to save you from wasting two-and-a-half precious, 27%-on-the-Tomatometer hours of your life. You’re welcome.)
I bring this up because that senseless sequence is the spitting image of America. Too much shouting and not enough listening.
In a liberal democracy, politics is like a pendulum. A government is elected, pulling the pendulum to one side. The losing parties learn from defeat, typically moderating their strategies to win over centrist voters. The pendulum eventually swings back in the other direction as voters react to the excesses of the former government, and the process repeats. Even if there’s no result that will satisfy everyone, the free-market of ideas and values — fostered by an independent press and through free and fair elections — still generates an outcome that more or less reflects an equilibrium. So long as citizens are sufficiently enfranchised and engaged in their democracy, and the proper constitutional checks are in place to prevent abuses of power, balance is preserved.
We are living through a time in which the growing pains of an evolving world order threaten to upset that balance. In this new age of post-truth populism, facts matter less than agendas to those occupying both far ends of the political spectrum. That is a worrying prospect. It’s also understandable.
Although ‘populism’ is a pejorative word, it simply means “support for the concerns of ordinary people.” Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In fact, it sounds suspiciously like what democracy is supposed to be. And yet, Plato was suspicious of democracy itself, for fear that it would inevitably lead to tyranny when ordinary people, in their desperation, succumb to a charismatic leader’s deceptive promises. Populism is bubbling once again, just as it did in the 1920s, in reaction to ruling insiders who gorge themselves on a growing economic pie while leaving ordinary people with the crumbs.
Fueled by economic and cultural anxiety, the far-right is flourishing. As migrants fleeing war and poverty venture north, many Europeans are clutching their pearls and voting increasingly for Islamophobic, nationalist parties. In the United States, regional economic strife frustrated voters to the point of electing an outsider candidate who, despite his character flaws and opaqueness regarding potential conflicts of interest, is viewed by his supporters as an antidote to the loathed political establishment. Less a white knight than a wrecking-ball, if you will.
For its part, the far-left is responding with increasing hostility to what it regards as resurgent fascism. Far-left activists so regularly accuse their ideological adversaries of uttering hate speech that they are effectively against free speech. Some of their opprobrium is warranted; much of it is not. The far-left is succeeding primarily at shutting down the rational discourse on which democracy relies to solve disputes.
As growing extremism at both ends hollows out the political spectrum, space for moderate voices is shrinking. A shakeup wouldn’t be all bad: the political establishment comprises, almost by definition, those affluent few who are happy to twiddle their thumbs while ordinary citizens struggle to make ends meet. But there is also real danger, because the establishment represents stability. The emerging, polarized dynamic is adding weight and force to the swinging pendulum. As sentiments intensify at both ends, and demagogic politicians surface to capitalize on each new reactionary moment, it sways to and fro with growing violence. The walls encasing the pendulum can only tolerate so much punishment before they give way. If that happens, all bets are off.
Changing of the Guard
It becomes easier to hear out your ideological opponents when you understand where they’re coming from. More often than not, they’re coming from a place of pain. President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign phrase “The economy, stupid” got it right. Economics underpins nearly everything, including populism, which is essentially democracy in its purest form — for better or for worse.
Generally speaking, human beings order their priorities in life according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (below). When the economy falters and you lose your job, you lose the means to meet your basic needs (Physiological and Safety). The anxiety of wondering how you will pay your rent, mortgage, or children’s education consumes your thoughts, affecting your relationships or preventing you from forming new ones (Love/Belonging); it’s well known that poor people are less likely to get married. Being unemployed probably diminishes your self-esteem, too; among men in particular, being unable to provide for their family can make them feel that they’ve failed the people they love (Esteem). Needless to say, for someone in this state of mind, “self-actualization” — feeling that you have agency in the world and can leave a legacy — is out of the question. The stress of being unable to meet your basic needs has infected every aspect of your life.
The “Esteem” echelon is particularly pertinent to today’s politics: it influences how you behave toward other people, especially those outside your tribe — whether across the aisle or across the border. A shifting economic landscape is the main driver of stress among middle- and low-income households. That stress damages esteem and reduces the trust that’s required for good-faith dialogue.
Aided by a burgeoning artificial intelligence revolution, the world’s economy is expanding on the back of a densely-interconnected trade network. As emerging markets make up an increasing share of global output, billions of people around the world have seen their living-standards improve, reducing wealth inequality between countries.
Unfortunately, that is only half the story. Growth is concentrated in narrow economic sectors located mainly in urban centres around the world, meaning that income and wealth disparity within countries is enormous. Moreover, economic growth has a price: human industry continues, as it has for the last 150 years, to magnify the planet’s natural climatic cycles in ways that will make our lives more difficult.
In the West, where economic dominance is slipping gradually but steadily, the disruption is not well received. Wages’ share of the U.S. economy, for example, has been shrinking for decades (see chart) as automation and off-shoring displace American workers.
Two pivotal events early in the 21st century punctuated the trend of decline. First, the terror attacks on September 11, 2001 elicited an overreaction — suspension of key liberties; use of torture; extrajudicial murder; and costly, endless war — that cast doubt on western societies’ commitment to liberal-democratic values. Then a financial crisis struck in 2008, and the ensuing recession resurrected worthy critiques of our economic paradigm, with many losing faith in the established order and the leaders who represent it. The economic malaise caused by the global recession contributed to sparking a series of ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. The Syrian and Libyan civil wars, away from which hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to Europe, began from those uprisings. Meanwhile, instability in the rich world’s other peripheral regions — gang violence in Latin America, and persecution in south-east Asia — has pushed migrants toward the United States and Australia.
These crises set the stage for a populist backlash in several western democracies. In America, President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was a watershed moment. One could argue that this narrative is over-hyped: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of 2.9 million ballots, and was defeated in the Electoral College by a combined total of just 77,000 votes spread across three key swing states. Had only 39,000 of those votes gone her way instead, things would be framed differently today.
The underlying facts, of course, would have remained the same. The three states that narrowly cost Clinton the election — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — form part of the so-called Rust Belt, named for the abandoned factories that once provided manufacturing and coal-mining jobs throughout the region. It’s no coincidence that many White, low-income voters affected by economic disruption — who had supported President Barack Obama in 2012 — sent a message by choosing Donald Trump in 2016. Had Hillary Clinton become president, the optimistic, progressive narrative on which she campaigned would have likely overshadowed these dim, but urgent, details.
Highballs and Hypocrites
Although the Left accounts for more low-income voters than the Right overall, it’s now standard for Trump conservatives to refer to progressives pejoratively as either ‘liberal elites’ or ‘social-justice warriors’. Stereotypes like these lack nuance, but they nonetheless contain important kernels of truth that illuminate the ways in which the Left is failing.
When celebrities cheer for social justice while draped in jewelry and designer dresses worth more than a public-university education, it’s tough to take them seriously.
There may be no better emblem of liberal elitism than the spectacle of a Hollywood award ceremony, when the Who’s Who gather vainly in front of the cameras to trade insipid compliments. In a recent edition of one such annual masturbatory ritual, known more commonly as the 2018 Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey’s rousing speech received a standing ovation. With their applause, the Tinseltown glitterati packed into the Beverly Hilton that night signalled their enthusiastic approval of every cherished liberal cause under the Sun. Had there been banners hanging over the stage, one can imagine what they might have said: Equality! Female empowerment! Peace on Earth!
It’s hard to disagree with any of those things, particularly for progressive-minded people seeking refuge in a time of endless scandal and bright red baseball caps. Oprah’s speech was impeccable, even if she was preaching to the choir. Instead, the problem was with what was left unsaid.
You see, when celebrities cheer for social justice while draped in jewelry and designer dresses worth more than a public-university education, it’s tough to take them seriously. These people clapped vigorously, in the manner of those who assume that the millionaires who rub shoulders at lavish galas are somehow representative of Middle America. That belief couldn’t be further from the truth.
‘Limousine liberals’ are like that: much haughty talk and little sincere action. Sure, several Hollywood stars are philanthropists, as you would hope anyone with money-to-burn would be. But so long as liberal icons talk a big game one moment, then flaunt their obscene wealth the next, they’re just hurting the cause. These are the Left’s high-profile cheerleaders, the household names who endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. There are few traits uglier than sanctimony, especially when it’s marinated in hypocrisy. Is there any wonder why small-town conservatives across America feel disdain for ‘liberal elites?’
Speaking of Hillary Clinton, the swing of votes from Barack Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016 contributed to a big-league upset. Her political CV is without equal: Yale Law graduate; First Lady; two-term U.S. senator for New York; Secretary of State. She was even gracious in defeat in 2008, humbly accepting a position in President Obama’s cabinet while she bided her time. Team player — check. If anyone deserved to be president, it was her. She was ‘supposed’ to win.
Except, no one deserves to be president, and elections aren’t supposed to be won merely by paying dues and ticking boxes. If there’s one thing voters hate, especially in an age of growing economic frustration, it’s a candidate who takes them for granted.
Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election due, in part, to factors beyond her control. Still, that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. She was already in the danger zone as the paragon of dynastic, elitist, limousine-liberalism — a person who recites progressive platitudes on stage, then turns around and accepts massive speaking-fees from investment banks that make money hand-over-fist while millions of Americans drown in debt. Even if she’s truly committed to social justice, she’s evidently unwilling to sacrifice her own opulent lifestyle in pursuit of those lofty ideals. That makes her a hypocrite. She felt entitled to sit in the Oval Office, and she made the mistake of showing it (on top of insulting millions of so-called “deplorable” voters).
Hey hey! Ho ho! Sanity has got to go!
None of this should be taken as an endorsement of the Right. Even though political compromise is a necessary part of any tenable future, it would be lazy to say that that is all we need to build a better world. Atomizing, ‘me-first’ conservatism is too parochial to meet the pressing, global-level challenges our world faces. Solutions in a digital economy that discounts the value of human labour will inevitably be socialistic. To some significant degree, progressive politics will have to prevail in order to care for everyone amidst great upheaval. Regrettably, in response to right-wing populism, at precisely the moment when the progressive movement needs to build momentum, the so-called social-justice warriors (SJWs) of the far-left have chosen instead, myopically, to alienate almost everyone.
If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, SJWs specialize in masonry. In an attempt to protect vulnerable minorities, they have doubled down on identity politics as a way of trying to level the social playing field. Race-based affirmative action, for example, is popular on the Left as a way of assuring diversity within companies and universities. The idea is that discrimination is justified if it aids those who begin at a disadvantage. In the interest of fostering equal socioeconomic opportunity, though, it makes more sense to pursue class-based affirmative action that gives a leg up to low-income applicants, regardless of their racial lineage. Not only would this still be effective at providing opportunity to disadvantaged minorities—Black and Indigenous people in America are disproportionately likely to grow up in poverty compared to White and Asian people, for instance — but it would also avoid the resentment stirred by providing special treatment on the basis of immutable traits.
If the political issue that gets you marching in the street, as a progressive activist, is demanding equal rights for trans people to participate in waging America’s endless wars, you’re asking the wrong question.
Concentrating on class distinctions is meaningfully different from focusing solely on identity, which, as Jordan Peterson points out, can be broken down endlessly — White, Hispanic, female, cis-gendered, bisexual, able-bodied, Atheist, conservative, veteran, left-handed, near-sighted, tall, skinny, half-sweet, no-foam latté. You get the idea. Identity politics isn’t just futile, it’s a dangerous and slippery slope. Remember: the ethno-nationalist far-right is all about racial discrimination. Playing into their hands is the last thing a wise person would do.
The far-left’s identity crusade leads SJWs to overreach in enforcing political correctness; a new report by More in Common, called Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, shows that 4 in 5 Americans believe political correctness is a problem. Eric Weinstein identifies three major issues — trade, immigration, and terrorism — that speak to what he calls a “checksum theory of politics”: if people can see easily that a given narrative is false, they quickly lose trust in those pushing that narrative. For an example of this principle in action, in which political correctness fosters a narrative that glosses over obvious caveats, he presents the issue of international trade as follows:
Do you believe that trade is a rising tide that raises all boats? It clearly is not. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t provide a net benefit, but it certainly is not the case that nobody gets hurt and everybody is made better off.
To be fair, political correctness occasionally has some narrow value. Certain obvious examples of cultural appropriation, such as the racist name “Washington Redskins,” should bother anyone who values human dignity. Still, SJWs frequently miss the forest for the trees, like when Black Lives Matter Vancouver accused Niki Ashton, a Canadian politician, of “appropriating Black culture” for simply tweeting lyrics of a Beyoncé song. Or when people became outraged by the Trump administration’s ban on transgender military service. That discriminatory order is unfair in principle, sure. But if the political issue that gets you marching in the street, as a progressive activist, is demanding equal rights for trans people to participate in waging America’s endless wars, you’re asking the wrong question.
The other favourite activity of SJWs on university campuses is to disrupt and ‘deplatform’ controversial guest speakers whom they unilaterally deem guilty of promoting hate speech. In so doing, these moral watchdogs are, in effect, opposed to free speech.
The Courage to Listen
They’re also in opposition to none other than Noam Chomsky, who happens to know a thing or two about progressive political activism. Chomsky — who is Jewish — courted controversy in 1980 when, in defense of an alleged Holocaust denier’s right to free speech, he wrote that “it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended…” In other words, if you don’t support the free expression of ideas you disagree with, you don’t believe in the right of free expression at all.
Through his courage in that affair, Chomsky taught a lesson the far-left would do well to absorb. It’s not only naive and unproductive, but simply cowardly, to dismiss heterodox perspectives out of hand — even if those ideas are filthy. Credibility is derived from intellectual integrity. To be credible, you must be principled; it proves you’re seeking the truth, whatever that may be. You must submit your ideas to be tried against others in the court of public opinion. If an idea is truly bad, it should be easy to vanquish using a better argument. If an idea is truly superior, it should be easy to defend, because good ideas speak for themselves. Not all opinions are created equal, but we can only discover which is which by comparing them fairly.
Many concepts that we take for granted to be self-evident were not always so. For instance, had it been self-evident that slavery was wrong, it would have never existed. Slavery was eventually abolished in most parts of the world because the arguments against it plainly outweigh any argument that could plausibly be given in its favour. But to argue against slavery using tautological reasoning — slavery is wrong because it’s wrong — fails to put the issue to bed.
The dialectical process is crucial, because it’s not enough to just coerce your opponents into silence. Consider, as an analogy, the Nuremburg Trials in 1945, which, although flawed, represented the Allies’ attempt to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Why not just assassinate those suspects instead? First, by adhering to common standards when your opponents did not, you gain the moral high ground. Second, by bringing a suspect into a court of law, building a case against him, and pronouncing him guilty on the basis of evidence, you justify your position and set a precedent for posterity.
The same is true of ideas. “Because I said so!” isn’t a valid argument. If you really care about pursuing truth in the court of public opinion, you must discredit bad ideas openly, for all to see; intellectual integrity gives good ideas staying power. With their hooting and hollering, SJWs of the far-left take the opposite approach, making them no better than stubborn children who cover their ears and stamp their feet. Worse, they’re diminishing the broader Left’s credibility and jeopardizing efforts to advance progressive ideals.
A Gift to the Right
Ideologues at both far ends of the political spectrum make the mistake of viewing the moral landscape in absolutes. On the far-right, this generally manifests as “Western chauvinism,” as Gavin McInnes proudly puts it. On the far-left, it often results in the opposite: blaming White people, in one way or another, for all of humanity’s ills. Needless to say, human nature and history are far more complicated than either of these ridiculous positions.
Regardless of political ideology, it takes a rather unique personality to protest abstruse issues in public, much less harass a guest speaker on campus. Then there’s Antifa (short for “anti-fascists”), the militants of the far-left, who have convinced themselves that LARPing violently against small gatherings of neo-Nazis in the streets every now and then is a necessary show of resistance. I suppose these hooligans hope the world will thank them, someday, for strangling the scourge of neo-fascism in its cradle by throwing bricks at tiki-torch-wielding neck-beards. Not holding my breath.
Yet, at least some of these rabble-rousers, both on the Left and the Right, must surely recognize how insignificant their actions are in the larger scheme of things. After all, even though Sparky might feel satisfied when his barking scares the mailman away from his yard each morning, the rest of the neighbourhood still gets its mail. All he’s done is deprive his owners of news. Subscribers to either extreme may believe in what they’re doing, but there’s more to it than that. Much activism, especially among young people, comes down to tribalism. Human beings find meaning in being dedicated to a shared cause. Protesters are, first and foremost, seeking an emotional high. Ironically, the two extreme ends of the political spectrum give each other purpose, presenting a moral hazard: neither side has incentive to reconcile with the other, because conflict is their raison d’être.
Filling the streets can have a real political impact, but only when it involves thousands of people. And above all, the cause must be just, both in aim and in tactic. Suppressing free speech, apart from that speech which explicitly incites violence, is not just. Chomsky derides Antifa, calling it “a major gift to the Right.” He reasons that:
When confrontation shifts to the arena of violence, it’s the toughest and most brutal who win — and we know who that is. That’s quite apart from the opportunity costs: the loss of the opportunity for education, organising, and serious and constructive activism.
There’s a way to visualize the opportunity costs in question. The Hidden Tribes report mentioned earlier classifies a plurality of Americans as “politically disengaged.” The study concludes that more people lean right than left, and that a large, ideologically flexible majority are simply exhausted by all the bickering. The antics of the 8% who identify as “progressive activists,” then, don’t just threaten to discourage others from engaging in politics because they’re frustrated by the hostile, with-us-or-against-us mentality that pervades important debates. They risk pushing the exhausted, flexible majority toward the Right.
A Better Way
The biggest mistake the far-left makes is to paint anyone who disagrees with it as, at best, stupid, and at worst, evil. That is a losing strategy.
Many activists on the far-left and far-right appear to believe that if only they sign enough petitions, if only they shout loudly enough, if only they brow-beat the ‘evildoers’ long enough, their foes will suddenly come to Jesus. Life isn’t like that. Political struggles constitute a battle for hearts and minds. That battle can only be won through persuasion, never by force. Life is hard for most people; for the sake of their own dignity, they will cling to whatever means of agency they can find. If that means standing up to the person yelling at them simply for the sake of standing up, that’s what they’ll do. Activists must show some empathy and accept that they can’t all be iconoclasts all the time. The harder you push, the more resistance you will encounter. Unless you just enjoy fighting — and there are some who do — there’s a better way.
Progressives must focus less on what they hate, and more on the future they want to build. They need to present viable alternatives to today’s challenges. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek evidently feels the same way, for he’s fond of asking, rhetorically, “What happens the day after the revolution?”
That’s an indispensable question. What many on the progressive Left don’t understand about the conservative Right is that conservatism, to quote Michael Oakshott, is concerned with “respect for the epistemic and moral authority of tradition over abstract faith in the power of Utilitarian reason.” If the Left is ever going to convince a critical mass of conservatives that a healthy dose of progressive action is necessary to meet challenges, it will have to be packaged as some sort of quid pro quo that preserves certain useful traditions. That will require the courage to engage in dialogue instead of pulling fire alarms.
In keeping with the great American tradition of cherry-picking apocryphal quotations from the Founding Fathers to persuade those who don’t know any better, I give you a wise and fitting phrase that Benjamin Franklin may or may not have uttered: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” The important thing is that it’s true — and timeless. Hanging together isn’t so much about seeing eye-to-eye on things as it is about engaging with one another in good faith. Listening to people with whom you disagree, and taking their concerns seriously, is an underrated way of resolving disputes that, at first, seem intractable. People give up too easily. Give listening a chance.
I write about politics, economics, and feminism. Check out my Table of Contents for a list of everything I’ve written on Medium.