There’s some truth to this latest piece by Jonathan Chait but I have to say the initial framing is a bit tiresome. Chait points out that what used to be called political correctness has been supercharged over the past 7 years or so and has gone by a series of names including call-out-culture, cancel culture, wokeness, etc. But he’s quick to shove aside conservatives who’ve been complaining about all of these things for years. Their opinions never really count because, according to Chait, “every time a new label came along, Republicans would slap it on literally anything that wasn’t right wing…What remained of the liberal left would have to clarify that, no, what they were critiquing was stuff that was really far out there: impenetrable jargon, irrational mobs, struggle sessions, creepy forced apologies, absurd firings.”
So in his view it’s conservatives who’ve been fundamentally unserious about all of this. Of course there are people on the right who describe everything under the sun as “woke” but there are also many commentators who’ve been at least as sensitive to the various terms and their meanings as Jonathan Chait. Those people don’t deserve to be ignored so Chait can continue to pretend conservatives are never right about anything.
In fact, it would be just as accurate, if not more so, to say that people on the left have been utterly dismissive of the existence of cancel culture, wokeness, etc. for the past 7 years. That’s not strictly true but it certainly describes a lot of people on the left who have openly ridiculed those of us who saw the problem coming 6-7 years ago. As I said, it’s an annoying opening to a piece that didn’t need it. That said, Chait does go on to describe the problem accurately.
The way the illiberal left has been dealing with race and gender is of a piece with the way it has approached a range of debates in the social-media era. Activists reduce nearly every issue to a moralistic binary and cast any dissent as a personal failing. Disagree with the policy activism of the Sunrise Movement? You’re a boomer happy to let the planet fry after you enjoy your remaining time on it. Not sure single-payer health care is the best strategy? You must want people to die on the street.
It is on identity-related issues that this style of thinking has made the most headway. Academia has produced left-wing philosophical challenges to liberalism that treat speech as tantamount to violence and regard political disputes as a zero-sum conflict between oppressor and oppressed. And while these illiberal norms often originated on campus, they have expanded into progressive communities like primary schools (mostly private ones), media, publishing, and political and social-activist organizations.
Chait points out that this expansion from college campuses to the broader political discussion has mostly come by the threat of harassment or punishment of those who dare to disagree. But he believes the pushback on this kind of bullying is now starting to find its feet:
I can think of three reasons why the PC wave may be ebbing. The first is that many liberals who were uncertain how to respond to these norms have seen enough of them to decide they don’t like them, having gone from positive or indifferent to critical. Writers like Matthew Yglesias and Jeffrey Sachs, who a few years ago were dismissing the notion of any rising trend of illiberalism on the left as a myth, have since conceded the trend is very real. Left-wing publications like Jacobin and commentators like Briahna Joy Gray have increasingly criticized the left’s rigid approach to gender and identity.
Again, I have to pause to point out that the fact that voices on the left have come around is good news but if there’s a sense that the pushback is making progress it’s only because those voices on the left are joining a much larger set of voices on the right who were already against this sort of illiberalism. What Chait is doing is akin to praising (or blaming) Sens. Manchin and Sinema for blocking the Biden agenda when in fact the only reason their voices matter is because there are 50 GOP senators who already oppose that agenda.
The Democrats’ middling performances in 2020 and the 2021 off-year elections, and the lessons they might contain for the upcoming midterms, have brought elected Democrats face-to-face with the consequences of allowing the most militant members of the progressive movement to bully their party into adopting maximalist stances on issues like school closings, immigration enforcement, and crime. It’s now much harder for progressives to depict, say, support for enforcing immigration law or opposition to defunding the police as inherently racist when it’s clear the communities supposedly offended by those positions support them.
Yes, a substantial minority of the Democratic Party has lost touch with reality and they are now paying the price for it. There’s some truth to that but many of the people who oppose the left’s extremism are just echoing things the right has been saying about the left’s extremism for a while already. The individuals and groups who find the backbone to stand up to the woke mob deserve credit for doing so but the truth is they came late to the party and aren’t really in a position to take credit for showing others the way.