Progressive Illiberalism

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Jonatan Chait:

"The preconditions that permitted these events to go forward are the spread of distinct, illiberal norms throughout some progressive institutions over the last half-dozen years. When I wrote about the phenomenon in 2015, a common response was to dismiss it as the trivial hijinks of some college students, a distraction from the true threats to democratic values. It certainly was (and remains) true that the right poses a vastly greater danger to liberalism than does the far left. My own writing output reflects this enormous disproportionality. It is also true that the intended (if not always actual) target of the left’s illiberal impulses — entrenched systems of inequality — remain an oppressive force in American life, and that the cause to dismantle them is just.

Nonetheless, it is an error to jump from the fact that right-wing authoritarian racism is far more important to the conclusion that left-wing illiberalism is completely unimportant. One can oppose different evils, even those evils aligned against each other, without assigning them equal weight.

Both American public opinion and many institutions have moved left on race and gender during this time. It is a positive change opening humane new possibilities for reform, but it has come along with some illiberal side effects. Over the last few weeks, as protests against the murder of George Floyd produced outrageous brutality against protesters, the good primary effect and the bad side effect seem to have advanced rapidly in tandem.

Without rehashing at length, my argument against the left’s illiberal style is twofold. First, it tends to interpret political debates as pitting the interests of opposing groups rather than opposing ideas. Those questioning whatever is put forward as the positions of oppressed people are therefore often acting out of concealed motives. (Even oppressed people themselves may argue against their own authentic group interest; that a majority of African-Americans oppose looting, or that Omar Wasow himself is black, hardly matters.) Second, it frequently collapses the distinction between words and action — a distinction that is the foundation of the liberal model — by describing opposing beliefs as a safety threat.

Working from these premises, many reactions by the left that might seem bizarre to somebody unfamiliar with this world (say, an older or more moderate person who doesn’t work in academia or the progressive movement) can make perfect sense. Since criticism of violent protests is racist, and racism obviously endangers black people, an act as seemingly innocuous as sharing credible research poses a threat to safety." (