Several months ago, Galen Watts and I published two articles on what we called the engaged left. In these pieces, we provided a brief genealogy of progressive thinking and activism, distinguishing between the old left and the new left. While the old left tended to be concerned with egalitarian economic policies, the new left that emerged in the 1960s differentiated itself partly by rejecting or marginalizing old Marxist and socialist paradigms. I argue that new leftism is defined by a combination of critical irony towards established traditions and political outlooks, and declaratory outrage about their persistence. While the new left has advanced many admirable progressive causes, it also led even sympathetic commentators to characterize the left as purely critical, relativistic and even nihilistic. By contrast, Galen and I argue that we are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of engaged leftism, which adopts a different argumentative style. Engaged leftists, such as Douglas Lain of Zero Books and Natalie Wynne aka Contrapoints, share many traits in common with the new left. They are highly opposed to reactionary and conservative positions, and use humour and irony to deconstruct opposing stances. But they are also more likely to advance constructive positions, rather than just being critical. And, most importantly here, engaged leftists are more likely to argue substantively with conservative positions. Whether they are examining the work of major right-wing pundits, breaking down the history of the conservative tradition, or debating in public forums, engaged leftists are willing, as Ben Burgis puts it, to “give them an argument.”
But there are ways in which engaged leftists might engage with conservatives even more successfully. I’d like to outline some of these.
Develop a Familiarity With Conservative Ideas
One of the most important steps when engaging conservative and right-wing positions is to develop a thorough understanding of them. This is quite difficult, since the political right has a long history, with many strands. Burkean conservatism, neoliberalism, right-wing nationalism, religious traditionalism, Straussianism, libertarianism and so on share some familial similarities and can engage in tactical and even long-term alliances. But they are also defined by considerable differences. Burkean conservatives, who are cautious about change, may see the world quite differently from libertarians, who believe in fundamental, natural rights to property and freedom. Neoliberal Never Trumpers may detest Trumpian nationalists. Making sense of this morass can seem like a daunting task. One way to facilitate this is to begin by reading a respected commentator like Roger Scruton on the great tradition as a whole (I review Scruton’s latest book here), accompanied by a more critical take like Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. Once one has a feel for the terrain, diving into discrete sub-positions can be considerably easier.
This obviously cannot be accomplished overnight. But, as J. S. Mill rightly pointed out, to truly criticize a position you must know it in its “most plausible and persuasive form,” as presented by its most articulate spokespersons. Avoid the reductive tendency to define all variants of conservatism by their worst progeny. This temptation can be especially acute, since commentators like Scruton tend to underplay the various bigots, violent reactionaries and genuine fascists, who have played an important intellectual role on the political right. But keeping an eye on nuanced differences can help prevent the tendency to lump everyone together.
Engaging with Moderate Conservatives
A familiarity with conservative ideas can make it easier to engage with moderates, who are willing to adapt their views under the right conditions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be willing to move leftwards. To a considerable extent, politics isn’t based on arguments and policies, but dispositions and personalities. Many people are instinctively conservative and unlikely to dramatically shift from that position. But it is possible to convince more moderate conservatives on a point-by-point basis. This is where familiarity with the best iterations of right-wing ideas can be very helpful. One can try to point to overlapping concerns and points of agreement, which political opponents might recognize and therefore be more willing to accept. For instance, when arguing about the on-going negative impacts of colonialism, you might point out that Edmund Burke was a formidable critic of British imperialism in India. He predicted that the hubristic belief of Europeans that they could remake and improve the rest of the world would only end in shame. Or, when discussing the problems with meritocratic arguments, you can point out that F. A. Hayek was often quite critical of such conceits. This not only facilitates agreement, but can foster a (sometimes grudging) mutual respect, since the people on the other side may concede that at least you are taking their arguments seriously—even if those arguments are being used to support positions to which they are opposed.
This leaves one big problem: distinguishing between moderate conservatives, who are open to dialogue and debate, and those who are not. This problem is quite serious since, as Nate Hochman puts it in his excellent National Review article, “The Intellectual Dark Web’s Quiet Revolution,” many conservatives don’t center their political identity on substantive positions. Instead, their political awakening is fostered by a reaction to the positions of the left:
For many young converts, the path to conservatism begins as a knee-jerk reaction to the contemporary Left: a feeling that its assertions must be wrong, with little understanding of exactly why. Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and others in this new intellectual movement offer the most coherent, thoughtful, and eminently rational explanation for this disposition. In many ways, the Intellectual Dark Web provides an intellectualization of the “reactionary” impulse that opposes the radicalism of modern left-wing campus culture. In this way, they have much in common with Burke, whose philosophy was articulated as an opposition to the Jacobin radicals of the French Revolution. To Goldberg’s observation that the IDW is merely united by its rejection of leftist thought, I propose that opposition to radicalism is, in and of itself, an ideology. If conservatism begins as a disposition—what Michael Oakeshott described as “a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be”—then the reactionary impulse is also a deeply conservative one.
This can be problematic, since a reactionary disposition that isn’t oriented around substantive positions tends to be suspicious of any claim made by the opposition. Since many conservatives got their start with a feeling that the left must be wrong, they may dismiss or ignore anything put forward by someone on that end of the political spectrum—even if you frame your position in a manner amenable to conservative ideas. In a one-dimensional media environment, where conservatism is often as much about cheering for the team as believing in this or that, it can be frustratingly difficult to get someone on the right to budge, if she’s convinced you play for the other side. The most dogmatic are not really worth engaging, since it requires immense time and traction to even begin breaking through the hostility, and even then it is unclear whether the dialogue will have any lasting effect.
Dealing with the Far Right
Engaging in dialogue and criticizing conservative ideas can be effective with moderates or the open minded. But it is considerably more challenging with the far right, among whom many of the reactionary qualities discussed above have been turned up to a 10. Their worldviews can range from highly nihilistic to deeply antagonistic and they often scorn progressives for their futile efforts to humanize the world or hate them for upsetting natural hierarchies, in which the better rule over the inferior. Many on the far right are cynics, who aspire to waste your time through trolling and attention seeking provocation, or hostile critics, whose only aspiration is to humiliate and anger you. On occasion, there are strained efforts to present a concerted argument—usually by appealing to a wide array of tropes and concerns, which can seem contradictory, but which all support anti-egalitarian views. But these arguments are always couched in a hyper-aggressive format, in which the left—often abetted by liberals and moderate conservatives—is almost invariably responsible for all the problems in the world and needs to be extirpated like a cancer.
There is little point in engaging with these personalities dialogically. The best that can be done is to look at their ideas in isolation and observe where they are deeply flawed, erroneous or driven by hubris and resentment, rather than by a grasp of the real world. If done effectively, this can produce a hyperbolic counter-reaction, which can be annoying. This is better ignored than responded to, since the odds of changing anyone’s mind on the far right are minimal. People on that end of the political spectrum may end up changing their minds—and even regretting their involvement in the movement. But this is likely to occur because of external events, rather than through intellectual persuasion. However, if one sees a far-right individual begin to drift from his positions, a degree of cautious optimism is warranted. Criticizing that person for his earlier views is necessary—but, unless an olive branch is offered, he may be driven back to the far-right community. (Innuendo studios has produced an excellent video on this topic).
There are several reasons why engaging with conservatives might be a valuable activity. One might convince someone on the right to accept the validity of certain progressive ideas, from multiculturalism through to more egalitarian social policies. This is difficult, but important, if we want to develop a political and social consensus around the need for a more equal and fair society. You might also soften the disposition of a moderate conservative towards the political left, leading her to be less hostile towards progressive politics in future. This can be valuable, if one is successful in implementing egalitarian policies and wishes to see them stick, even if right-wing parties are swept back to power. For instance, in the British election of 1951, Labour proved sufficiently popular that, even though the Conservatives won back power, they didn’t roll back many of the welfare innovations implemented earlier, which had proven sufficiently popular to withstand democratic turnover. Softening attitudes has often contributed to the preservation of progressive policies, and the engaged left would be sensible to remember this historical precedent.