I am a liberal. I don’t need any qualifiers stuck on the front of this word, unless perhaps “modern” or “contemporary.”
I feel no inclination to call myself a “progressive” liberal, though the term fits both in the social and economic senses — I support truly progressive social progress and justice (though not the regressive, authoritarian, narcissistic, puritanical strand identifying itself with these agendas). I don’t need to call myself a “classical” liberal, which today alludes to but only weakly resembles Millian, Jeffersonian, or even Lockean liberalism, although perhaps this term would come closest to describing my most fundamental political views. I am just a liberal — that is, generally anti-authoritarian and supportive of incremental social progress and blended economies built upon and embedded within a broader social, political, and economic framework whose backbones are republican democracy, regulated capitalism, and scientific knowledge production. I present this in direct contrast to the position of most people on the political extremes, who are, for lack of better terms, partisan lunatics.
So, I am just a liberal, and I feel no need to modify this or qualify it because the term fits as it is, unadorned. Whether this puts me within the purview of the left or the right usually depends on the issue, though admittedly, in both economic and social affairs, I tend to fall to the left of center (for an American), sometimes rather significantly. Left and right as we understand them now are largely, but not wholly, irrelevant to liberalism — most moderates on the right and nearly all moderates on the left are liberals. No partisan lunatics are liberals, and all, if I must use this term, are enemies of liberalism.
This essay is therefore largely concerned with defeating the partisan lunatics and getting universal liberalism back on track. The trouble is, as a liberal in today’s political climate, I feel it important to focus most of my time and energy to my left, not to my right, though the latter is the considerably larger danger in nearly every regard. This is a decision that needs justifying because I hope to convince you that my choice is the right one. I also hope to convince you to join me in fighting and winning this culture war strategically and on the side of universal (not “classical” or “progressive”) liberalism, whether your politics align on the right or the left. Indeed, this is an argument about how to defeat the lunatic right by criticizing the lunatic left.
The Shift from Right to Left
Long ago, when I first became politically active, I spent much of my time criticizing certain strains of conservatism — especially religious social conservatism (as an atheist) and anti-government “libertarianism” (as a sane person, as I’m referring to the followers of Ayn Rand, for the most part). I did so because the first of these is in direct contradiction to the liberal project, and the second is quixotic and farcically unrealistic, in the very kindest description. Over time, however, my focus has slowly shifted and I spend far more time now criticizing my crazy neighbors on my left. This shift in focus has led to some people believing that my antagonism is directed solely at the left and for others to go further and assert that I harbor some deep undeserved sympathies with the far right. This is a mistake that cannot stand much honest scrutiny, but it may need explaining.
Put simply, the shift is strategic. I see specific advantages to criticizing the left over the right and specific disadvantages to criticizing the right directly. Thus, rather than arguing against it, if I talk about the right, which I still do fairly often, I do so more as a “conservative whisperer.” This is a role by which I mean to say I, living so deeply within the midst of their hardliners, possess a certain ethnographic understanding of them that I find frighteningly rare and imminently necessary, given that they’ve taken over nearly the whole of the United States government and are thereby freaking everyone but themselves out, bigly. I fear that only by understanding what’s going on with right-wing hardliners do we have any hope of excluding them from much of mainline politics, which is a fairly serious issue. Worse, we mostly seem to be going about it in exactly the wrong way.
Some of those furthest to my left have accused me of misogyny, white and male fragility, and mocked my alleged “male tears.” This, of course, is as ridiculous as it is counterproductive, but they’re not entirely wrong to think that I object to the behavior I see on the left on a personal level. As a white male, I’m sick of being boxed in by socially justified and acceptable racism and sexism that we’re all supposed to ignore, pinkies raised from our glasses, in high-minded deference to an intentional conflation of racism and sexism with their systemic counterparts. I’m tired of seeing important concepts like sexual harassment and sexual assault trivialized, along with their victims, by yet another moral panic gone too far from what could have been fruitful roots. I’ve had enough of being ludicrously and generically accused of being indifferent, callous, biased, privileged, racist, sexist, something-phobic, and a potential rapist for one lifetime, along with whatever else, as have essentially all of my friends and neighbors to my right — a crucial point likely to get downplayed.
I could go on, but okay! Mea culpa! It’s not quite an ax to grind, but there’s a level of personal exasperation to this for me. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, given the circumstances, and I therefore don’t care much about the approval of people who think this way. I do care about being misunderstood by reasonable people on the left, people who don’t support the illiberal excesses and snark of the “woke” and see the problems with it. I especially lament those who think I waste my time or act counterproductively focusing so much on the left when the right is (obviously) so much more of a problem. That, then, brings us to something more meaningful.
Aside from the personal, there is an obvious reason I focus more on the left than the right. I’m quite convinced that the primary irritant inflaming the populist right (among many other complicated social, political, and economic factors I could devote pages to if I had them here) is the unique set of excesses and failures of the political left. My evidence for this belief accords with Occam’s Razor, which doesn’t necessarily make it right: rather than believing that my populist right-wing neighbors are just dupes to propaganda, I find it more compelling to believe that they also have a point.
One point that the right-wing populists have certainly seized upon with nativist, if not xenophobic, glee is that among many other similar issues, the left is generally proving itself to be a starry-eyed band of utter bunglers where it comes to dealing with what is likely to be the greatest human rights problem of our time: the roles and effects of Islamic militancy and theocracy throughout Muslim-majority countries. I don’t pretend to know many (or any) of the right answers to this incredible and terrible problem, but I can say without a doubt that moral relativism and decision making led by a certain well-exploited and irrational terror of being branded Islamophobic are nowhere among them. The right, for all its own excesses and embarrassments, doesn’t just intuit this; it knows it viscerally — and it’s right.
Arguing against the right on this point is necessary but it’s almost as banal as it is pointless. There’s almost nothing to be gained by beating back the racists, nativists, xenophobes, and terrified rubes on ultimately simple points until the left has at least done the decency of taking a grown-up position on the issue. The left gives away enough authority to the right to elect Donald Trump and effect a Brexit on this issue and will continue to do so until it can publicly grapple honestly with the fact that there are a few real points underneath so much right-wing yammering about the Islamic migrant crisis — about the cultural and economic impacts of mass immigration in general, about the cultural clashes sure to follow as it comes into the West, about certain aspects of Islam and ways it is sometimes practiced, about the problems associated with imperfect vetting procedures in the given context, about its unique relationship with contemporary terrorism, and about the fundamental nature of any strongly sectarian immigrants, to name a few.
While I have neither the expertise nor the will to dwell upon the topic of Islamism and its related problems, nor upon the failures of both left and right to grapple with it like adults in a mature society, there are other topics upon which I feel this same bite of banality and pointlessness when I choose how to spend my time. I could criticize the right’s obvious, often ignorant and bigoted nonsense, say about women’s or LGBT issues, but it is, well, obvious thus both well-canvassed otherwise and boring. This is to say nothing of it being, apparently, pointless. One must surely have noticed that today’s hardliner right shouldn’t have much power and should have been easy to stop from getting it, but that hasn’t worked and seems to have gone rather badly wrong. Something’s missing, and it’s not criticizing the far right for being a bunch of spiteful troglodytes. There’s an alternative, however: I could challenge the academic, mythological, and moral architecture on the left that routinely gives the far right the undeserved gift of sounding semi-sensible on these topics by comparison, a problem which, to me, seems simultaneously more subtle, intricate, and tractable.
Addressing the Biggest Problems
In making my choice of what to do with my time, I have to consider at least two things, which lead to three strategic advantages to my focusing more on the left than the right. My apologies that this is a bit complicated.
First, there’s my sphere of influence. The truth is, I think I can do something about the madness within the left, and if that brings down the social and political irritation just enough to help liberalism regain footing and power, I’m happy to contribute to that project. Ultimately, right now, the balance may need not shift much —Clinton did win the popular vote by a historic margin, after all — to tip to the left’s favor, but it’s still faced with two major problems. One is that it’s been hemorrhaging power across the national and state legislatures for a decade, and the other is that it already seems likely to end up winning big as it mobilizes like rarely before against Trump.
To the first of these problems, we need the left sane enough again to attract support from the wavering middle, people like those who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Obviously, there are many reasons why these people defected, significantly including a feeling of failed promises regarding economic and community recovery and a well-cultivated distrust of Hillary Clinton, but it is nearly beyond doubt that the fear-mongering of the hardliner right about the lunatic left played some role in swaying their opinions. This seems to require bringing the left back down to earth, both in terms of a certain snobbish, scolding elitism and in terms of wanting to call everyone in flyover country a racist hick for disagreeing with them. That won’t actually work, however, as the far left will probably not be dissuaded, so it remains to convince these waverers in the middle, especially those already aligned on the left, that cleaving to truly liberal principles is the right thing to do.
To the second, it isn’t just the hardliner right, or the right more broadly, that is reasonably concerned about the current left winning power and then abusing it. Everyone who the crazy far left calls “the right” (or “the far right” or “Nazis”), which is nearly everyone right of and including Bernie Sanders, has significant reasons for concern. Indeed, as these hypervigilant leftists have widely noticed — and paradoxically celebrated like the routing of a dangerous traitor — much of the mainline left is tipping toward the right (or ardently taking up the center) specifically to mitigate their chances of seizing political power. This isn’t just an unhealthy situation for the left; it’s bad for liberalism. We don’t need our politics to be the choice between two horrible illiberal choices if we can just muster one liberal option between them.
Clearly, both of these circumstances urgently demand that those parts of the left which are distinctly not liberal need to realign strongly with the liberal project (which is unlikely) or be excluded from it (which is a goal within reach), and soon. That is, we need the mainline left obviously sane again, so it can be strong again, and we need it legitimately sane again because should it soon come into a lot of power again, we must hope it can wield it responsibly. Optimizing this complex circumstance requires criticizing the left more than the right.
The second consideration is both simpler and more serious. We will not change the hardliner right by criticism. Speaking as a liberal atheist in the South who has tried just about everything, I have yelled at the rising right-wing hardliner tide for more than a decade — which is more than enough for several lifetimes — and I don’t plan to do it much anymore. As it happens, it still goes in and comes out, whether one can explain it or not. Second, it seems the big lesson of the last few years, for those willing to read it, is that yelling at right-wing hardliners only seems to make things worse.
The Hardliner Right
Ultimately the missing link in making sense of these challenges, thus solving them, lies in understanding that this cultural and political war has to be won strategically, and winning it for liberalism (whichever American party wishes to seize it properly!) means knowing how right-wing hardliners work. This is the unfortunate tea my whole life has been steeped in, so here is where I put my “conservative whisperer” ethnographer’s hat back on and get to the point of this essay. There is, in particular, one thing about today’s right-wing hardliners that I wish more liberals understood because it is integral to winning the culture war we’re currently embroiled in. Leftists and liberals never quite see this fact, but it elected Trump and is keeping him well-defended with staunch GOP support, so it matters rather a lot.
Right-wing hardliners will not have their minds changed from the outside.
Before elaborating on this point, pause to ask yourself how these right-wing hardliner lunatics got so much political power in the first place. Simply put, it is because they organize well, especially when they’re scared enough to circle their wagons. In times of high polarization and major social change — both of which are occurring now — right-wing hardliners tend to circle their wagons around a blanket rejection of all things they deem liberal, even to the point of nihilistic bitterness and devil-may-care spite. If you take nothing else from this, let it be that the main thing that right-wing hardliners put their backs up about is being told what to do or how to be by anyone they identify as an outsider, and that means liberals and Never-Trumpers (who they see as essentially the same thing).
To better understand the right-wing hardliner mind, I’d like to explain a couple of related examples of their mindset to you that no one outside of the American South seems to understand. Where I live I still occasionally hear the Civil War referred to as “the War of Northern Aggression,” and I cannot go a week without seeing at least a handful of proudly flying Confederate flags. “Heritage, not hate!” right? So we hear, endlessly, and — well, yes, actually. As a Southerner who thinks the Confederate flag is utterly garish and ridiculous, if not an outright symbol of treason against our nation and deeply steeped inextricably with undeniable racism, let me explain this phenomenon to you.
These two apparently ridiculous ideas about Confederate heritage are actually quite simple from the right-wing hardliner’s perspective. Before the Civil War, the South had a way of life and ordering society. It goes without question both that the Southern order was based around slavery and racism of the rankest sort and that it was wrong. Though you will find some — including some who ran recently for Senate — remarkably few Southerners disagree with these points: racism and slavery are wrong (even if some might lawyer a bit around the former). This fact is not actually in mainstream dispute. Neither is the fact that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery.
We’re not talking about the realm of mainstream dispute, however. We’re talking about right-wing hardliners who are having a moment in the sun that they almost surely don’t deserve. For them, the Civil War, as seen from the perspective that calls it “the War of Northern Aggression,” wasn’t fought over slavery — not exactly. It was, instead, a war waged purely because the American federal government intended to force, by one means or another, Southern states to renounce their existing way of life and socioeconomic order. Notice the principle about right-wing hardliners is clearly at play: they will not have their minds changed from the outside.
And here’s where this gets complicated for many to understand: there are two moral principles at play here, and Southerners fly their Confederate flags in defense of the other one. The obvious principle people assume dominates, of course, is the abject moral failure of racism and slavery. Liberals tend to think when they argue about the Civil War or its Confederate battle flag, they’re arguing against lingering support for these. To be sure, to some degree, they are. Racists still exist, and lots of them fly Confederate flags because it gives them a plausibly deniable means for displaying their racism. On the other hand, by far most right-wing hardliners (and their sympathizers) who say things like “heritage, not hate!” in response are not arguing for support of racism or slavery — they know these are wrong. They’re defending their own sovereignty.
The deeper the argument with right-wing hardliners about the Confederate flag goes, the more fraught it becomes because effectively nobody except right-wing hardliners understands right-wing hardliners. Their whole cultural architecture is different. For instance, it’s probable that you see the flying of Confederate flags as a tacit symbol of racism. A “heritage of hate,” you might even say in response to the common rejoinder. The trouble is, all of the right-wing hardliners who cling to notions of “Confederate honor” now don’t see the Civil War in those terms at all. They see it in terms of standing up for their principles, especially sovereignty, against outside aggression. Right-wing hardliners see the Confederate flag as a symbol of not having one’s mind changed by outsiders.
In some sense, as the philosopher Dan Dennett might put it, the Confederate flag is a symbol of belief in belief, together with a belief in sovereignty, and it is the preservation of this heritage that the irksome slogan and the last part of “the War of Northern [Outside] Aggression” refers to. Whether slavery and racism were right or wrong is irrelevant to the point, from this right-wing hardliner view; what matters to them is that being told who and how to be by some outside agency is also wrong. It is, in fact, wrong enough to go to war over in an attempt to sunder a country in defense of a abjectly immoral institution that would be displaced by advances in technology within decades anyway.
So it is with right-wing hardliners more generally. For them, through a metanarrative carefully cultivated by lunatics in right-wing media, liberals are the outsiders that repeatedly seek to impose their highfalutin will upon a sovereign people who don’t want any part of it, even if it’s good for them or the right thing to do. For them, the “liberal agenda” is a powerful, shaming-driven cultural phenomenon seeking to force “roughly half the country” to live in ways they can’t abide, and the “liberal media” is its hegemonic purveyor. And for them, it’s the end of the world. The predominant idea I encounter in right-wing hardliners today about the so-called “liberal agenda” is that it seeks to rip the foundations of society apart — to undermine the family, to ruin free enterprise, to dilute (or poison) society by under-restricted immigration, to erase the role of personal responsibility, to undermine cultural norms that promote societal cohesion, to rip apart national identity and spiritual growth, to hamper free speech by asserting what is and isn’t politically correct — and this is for them an existential threat, just like the to-be Confederate states felt building through the 1850s.
This is why what the left is doing now won’t work and is making the problem worse, which is by far the biggest reason I direct so much of my energy leftward rather than rightward. It doesn’t matter if you think it should work (I do too). It doesn’t matter if you believe (or know) right-wing hardliners are wrong, factually or morally (I do too). It doesn’t matter if you think right-wing hardliners should vote their interests (I do too). It won’t work. It never has, and it just won’t. Worse, it’s one of their best recruitment tools.
Right-wing hardliners operate from a different cultural narrative which isn’t the one the left thinks it is, and they believe it essentially completely. To beat all, it is primarily one of not having their minds changed by outsiders. So, go ahead; try to tell right-wing hardliners that they’re wrong with Trump or whatever else. Go get ‘em, tiger! They’re going to spite you for it, and they’ll do it at any cost, as we can plainly see. Respond with all the moral condemnation you like — I’ll probably agree with most of it — but please know: it still won’t work, and it will make things worse.
What to Do
There’s really only one option. What calls itself liberalism must be sane and subtle enough to keep from triggering the right-wing hardliner will to absolute sovereignty, their paranoiac fears, and their boundless spite for meddling outsiders, because once triggered, they circle the wagons and recruit sympathetic partisans very effectively with fear. Thus, chief among the sensible things for the left to be doing now includes abandoning moral relativism, taking an honest liberal line about everything that’s going on with the Islamic migrant crisis, and coming completely off the abjectly illiberal everybody-is-a-racist/sexist/etc-ist stigmatizing identity ride, which steadily pours gas on the fire. The easiest practical changes to make include taking obvious steps to get the hijinks at the university in order, quelling the left-leaning media addiction to calling everyone out for alleged bigotry, dropping everything to do with accusations of privilege, and cultivating strong, appealing center-left candidates to sweep the upcoming elections.
It may be a fatal mistake to see this strategic approach to our current problem as a matter of accommodation to the far right at the expense of the left. The problems endemic to the far left are making the left illiberal, and not only is this its own serious problem in need of urgent remedy, it’s also fueling the far right. Liberals who find themselves on the left seem to realize this, but they underestimate the problem, seeing it as relatively minor in comparison to the blatant and egregious illiberalism of the far right. Well, with that view, I agree, but with underestimating the degree to which these problems are co-constitutive, I emphatically do not. Unless and until the far left is deradicalized or excluded from the left-liberal project, it will remain one of the most significant forces in undermining both itself and liberalism to the right’s advantage. Because these problems have created one another, not only is this trend self-reinforcing; it necessarily comes at the worst possible time — when the ascendant right had already been completely hijacked by hardliner lunatics.
To borrow a now-dead phrase, this is not a drill. Though not everything, much in our sociopolitical sphere is going badly wrong and getting worse, and we need to act to preserve secular liberal democracy while its institutions remain largely intact. There are three primary goals in play, and all of them require criticizing the left more than the right. First, the left needs to be sane enough to win back a broader base of support so it can regain political power. Second, the left needs to be sane enough to utilize the power it’s likely to win in Trump backlash in a responsible way. Third, these only seem possible when the hardliner right isn’t constantly being triggered into radicalizing more people against the left. I’m pretty sure a remedy is possible, but direct assaults on the right from anyone remotely associated with the left isn’t going to do it. Thus, I am a liberal who (mostly) fights the left, even in the age of Trump. I trust you understand.