On February 11, journalist and lifelong liberal Chadwick Moore “came out” in the New York Post — but not as gay (he did that when he was 15). This time, at the age of 33, he came out as a conservative.
Moore’s transformation began last September, after penning a profile on the controversial Milo Yiannopolous for Out magazine. Moore describes how, after its publication, friends and acquaintances began shunning him. His best friend called him a “monster.” A stranger in a bar called him a “Nazi” for wanting greater border security. Though he voted for Clinton in November and has opposed Trump’s travel ban and some of his cabinet picks, Moore says, given the left’s increasing opposition to free speech and growing intolerance, that he is “closer to the right than where the left is today.”
Moore is not alone. Just days before, Dave Rubin, the host of the internet show The Rubin Report, announced his departure from the left. Also a lifelong liberal, Rubin explained in a video (produced by PragerU, affiliated with conservative commentator Dennis Prager) that much of the left has ceased being “progressive” and instead had come under the spell of a “regressive ideology.”
The regressive-left, he says, wants to censor politically incorrect speech, view people not as individuals but as members of groups, and judge ideas not on their truth or merits, but on how they make one feel. With the growing influence of the regressive-left, he says he can no longer call himself a progressive. “I’m a classical liberal, a free thinker,” he says, “and as much as I don’t like to admit it, defending my liberal values has suddenly become a conservative position.”
As a member of the left myself, I have to say, I can sympathize with Moore and Rubin. I too have been appalled by what has unfolded on college campuses. I too am ashamed of those on the left who have forgotten how to engage in a genuine argument and attempt to end a discussion by smearing their opponents with defamatory labels like “sexist,” “racist,” “bigot,” and “Islamophobe.” I too am tired of identity politics, with its encouragement of “competitive victimhood” and its conception of politics as a zero-sum contest among distinct groups.
Yet, despite my frustration, I have never seriously considered leaving the left.
Why? Because the regressives, no matter how loud or powerful or violent they become, do not represent the true left. For perhaps the first time ever, I can sympathize with the consternation of a moderate Muslim apologist declaring “Not in my name!” (The sympathy ends there: in many cases, the atrocity the apologist is denouncing is indeed sanctioned by an honest, straightforward reading of revered Islamic texts.)
Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect. Leftism is not a religion and has neither holy books nor prophets against which its adherents can be measured and judged. However, it does have a long and proud tradition — a tradition that combines the best elements of radicalism and classical liberalism.
Thomas Paine, for example — arguably the Urvater of the American left, was a rigorous defender of free speech and secularism and at the same time a proponent of what we would now refer to as social democracy. It was socialists like Eugene Debs, Victor Berger, and Charles Schenck whose opposition to World War I and defiance of the Espionage Act challenged the ability of the government to quash dissent, especially in wartime. It was radicals who in the 1960s led the Free Speech Movement on the campus of UC Berkeley, liberals at the ACLU who in the 1970s defended the rights of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, and socialists who in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s took all the way to the Supreme Court their challenges to state laws protecting the two-party system in attempts to make the political process more inclusive and competitive.
Given this consistent tradition, it strikes me as short-sighted and overreactive to walk away from the left now. It shows us quite starkly that it is the regressives who are deviating from the tradition. Simply put, it is they who have left us.
Surprisingly, Moore and Rubin concede this point. In the New York Post, Moore metaphorized it this way: “We were born in the Democratic Party,” he wrote. “Somebody set our house on fire, [and] we went running out.” And several weeks after the release of his “Why I Left the Left” video, Rubin admitted in a sit-down with Lauren Southern that, actually, “the left left me,” adding that he believes “the exact same things” since entering politics in the late 1980s — save a recent drift toward libertarianism on economic matters.
It’s at this point that Rubin’s ideas start to decohere. After all, Rubin worked for the unabashedly progressive Young Turks Network and as recently as December 2015 spoke highly of then-candidate Bernie Sanders. (“I do like Bernie,” he said. “Pretty much everything he says, I pretty much agree with.”) Why would a decades-long progressive whose beliefs have hardly changed suddenly choose to identify as a “classical liberal” — a term that, though undoubtedly contested, is largely synonymous with libertarianism?
It may be that Rubin is looking to stake out new ideological territory. After all, there is a growing consensus on the need for a “new center,” a space that excludes the regressives on the left and the authoritarians and demi-fascists on the (alt-)right and that encourages rational discussion among reasonable people. Classical liberalism, with its valorization of free speech and the individual, can easily seem like the solution to the excesses of both sides.
And those of us on the left would agree, but only up to a point. Since the country’s founding, Americans on the left have had no difficulty reconciling their beliefs in free expression and individualism with other, complementary beliefs, including beliefs about the importance of promoting equal opportunity and protecting the environment and public safety (yes, all at the cost of some liberty). Perhaps no person embodied this synthesis of social liberalism and economic progressivism better than Martin Luther King, Jr., whose commitments to civil rights and civil liberties were uncontaminated by his admiration for democratic socialism.
Of course, it may be that Rubin, Moore, and other ex-leftists have evolved on other issues as well, and are not defecting only to make a symbolic statement about the absurd behavior of those under the left’s crowded and increasingly noisy tent. If they have evolved on other issues, that’s perfectly legitimate, but, if so, I think it’s fair to say that some further explanation is in order.
But if Rubin’s beliefs are largely the same, why leave the left? Is it not more intellectually honest and strategically valuable to stay put and defend the left against the regressives? He wouldn’t be the first. Indeed, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher are excellent examples of figures who stayed on the left even when it was betraying its principles.
Hitchens, for instance, watched during the 1990s much of the mainstream American left and Democratic Party sacrifice its ideals and integrity to defend a president who himself lacked ideals and integrity (that would be Bill Clinton, by the way). After 9/11, he saw much of the left succumb to the hysteria of Bush Derangement Syndrome and a Chomskyite, “America-is-the-source-of-the-world’s-problems” mentality. The left, he observed, was more interested in listening to the likes of anti-war leaders like Ramsey Clark (a career defender of perpetrators of genocide) than to socialists and democrats in Afghanistan and Iraq desperate for help in throwing off the yoke of totalitarianism. It was for these reasons that Hitchens quit The Nation in 2002.
Because of this decision, and because of his advocacy on behalf of the Iraq War, he was often accused of being a turncoat — a neoconservative. Yet Hitchens rightly and flatly rejected this charge, declaring, “I’m not any kind of conservative.” It was the left’s principles that had changed, not his. And while he stopped identifying as a socialist on practical grounds (he saw at the dawn of the millennium no prospect for a socialist revolution), he never repudiated his education as a Marxist, writing in fluent materialist terms about the 2008 financial crisis and rising to the defense of Fabianism in the last years of his life. Needless to say, Hitchens never wavered in his free speech absolutism or his opposition to “epidermis and genitalia”-based thinking.
Like Hitchens, Sam Harris and Bill Maher have watched the left betray its values. They too have been critical of the creeping censorship on college campuses, political correctness, and the left’s embrace of identity politics. Yet none of these developments has convinced them to defect from the left. Harris and Maher both continue to fight — simultaneously — for and with the left, and argue without contradiction for socially liberal values and left-wing economic and public policies.
It can be tempting at this point to throw up one’s hands and ask, “What difference does it make? Isn’t this all semantics? Does it really matter whether one says ‘I’ve left the Left’ or ‘The left left me?’”
I think it does. Again, one can consider the (imperfect) analogy to Islam. As Maher and Harris have clearly stated, Islam needs to be reformed: too many of its adherents subscribe to beliefs about women, homosexuals, free speech, the freedom of conscience, and jihad that are fundamentally at odds with universal human rights. But they also recognize that they, as non-Muslims, lack the credibility to lead that reform. It is Muslims themselves who must argue for and usher in a modernization of the faith.
And so it is with the left.
We who believe in free expression and human rights must win back the left from the regressives (who, if they don’t represent a majority on the left, sure give the convincing impression of doing so).
One might also analogize the left’s situation to the right’s. After all, within the span of a few years, the alt-right went from fringe online movement to the seat of executive power — and has taken a large part of the Republican Party with it. Yet conservatives, from libertarian conservative Ben Shapiro to neoconservative Bill Kristol, have ardently resisted the efforts of Trump and the alt-right to re-make conservatism in their own image. This principled defiance — and not defection — is the proper response to the regressives’ attempted takeover of the left.
Indeed, the rise of Trump speaks to the necessity and urgency of saving the left rather than abandoning it. If the Women’s March sent any lasting messages it all, it is that the left’s greatest unifying principle is an opposition to Trump. One need only see that the protests were organized by a defender of shari’a yet attended by women wearing vagina hats to appreciate the ideological incoherence and moral confusion of the whole affair, if not the current state of the left itself. Astonishingly, some on the left are calling for a doubling-down on identity politics, the very strategy that may have cost Democrats the election.
This is precisely the wrong way to respond to Trump’s victory. As Nathan J. Robinson has convincingly argued in Current Affairs, “People see through empty rhetoric about empowerment and inclusiveness. They know that politics is about what the government does,” he writes, adding, “unless you’re telling them what you plan to do with the government, you’re not actually telling them anything.”
Instead, he says, “When someone asks ‘What kind of world does the left want to build?’ we need to have a vision. When someone asks ‘Why should I vote for you?’ the answer cannot be ‘Because I am not Trump.’ After all, people like Trump.”
In other words, the left needs to organize not around opposition to a specific individual like Trump, but around shared and universal values — values that beget a coherent agenda.
Whatever one thinks of the specifics of his platform and policy proposals, a figure like Bernie Sanders ought to be commended for laying out a broad, post-identity vision of exactly this sort. While it is true that Sanders may have felt it necessary during the Democratic primary to emphasize his activism and track record on civil rights to rebut allegations of color blindness or insensitivity to the deaths of African-Americans caused by law enforcement, it was both rare and remarkable just how much his campaign prioritized universal issues: universal healthcare, free tuition for students attending public colleges and universities, campaign finance reform, climate change, trade policy, wealth and income inequality — it is issues like these that can form the basis of a unified left.
(Since reading Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank, I blush at describing “inequality” as an issue. Inequality, he says, is “not an ‘issue’” but rather “nothing less than the whole vast mystery of how we are going to live together.” Inequality, he poignantly puts it, “is the reason some people find such significance in the ceiling height of an entrance foyer or the hop content of a beer while others will never believe in anything again.”)
If the left is going to prevent a repeat of 2016 and win in 2020, and beyond, it’s going to need a broad and truly inclusive vision — especially if it plans to win back the segments of the electorate that voted for Obama in 2012 but Trump in 2016 (which includes people of all backgrounds, not just working-class whites). This is why, now more than ever, the left needs to do some soul-searching. If it can’t articulate what it stands for, it will have little chance of winning, no matter how boorish or uninformed the opposing candidate is.
For the left to regain its strength and purpose, people will have to re-assess what drew them to it in the first place. Whenever I feel the urge to leave the left, I ask myself questions like this:
Without the left, who will reverse the government policies that have led to a massive upward redistribution of wealth?
Without the left, who will enact policies that will expand access to affordable and quality healthcare and education and promote true equality of opportunity?
Without the left, who will enact campaign finance reform?
For those who have left the left, or are considering doing so, I urge you to ask yourselves why you joined the left if the first place, and what, in the long term, would be accomplished by abandoning it. In doing so, I hope you’ll realize why we can’t afford to leave it now, and why it’s urgent that we save it together.