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.
[…] Some—like Zachary R. Wood in this TED talk—advise us to gather information about our adversaries, in order to strengthen our case against them. Matt McManus, a leftist academic who studies conservative ideology, is a particularly sophisticated practitioner of the latter art. McManus writes: […]
Wow, Mr. MacManus is now “Engaged Left”! Old shabby commie came up with a new name 🤣
michelle goldberg in her debate with peterson lied about his vice interview, which u can watch all 30 mins of and prove she lied, he called her a liar and she just double down.
glad to see fry and peterson take on pc authoritarians
Something else I just thought of, and I don’t mean this pejoratively at all, is that Matt McManus could be a member of the IDW. I actually think he would be welcomed because of the *way* he discusses these issues.
I am bewildered by the argument that the IDW is essentially conservative and united because of opposition to the social justice left; that the IDW cannot be understood without reference to Burke, neoliberalism, and neoconservatism; that every article I’ve read on the subject uses Shapiro, Peterson, or Rubin as the spokespersons for the IDW in order to lump the entire group into these categories. There are major players–or “members” of the IDW to the extent that they can even be accurately described as such–whose primary positions are dialogue, honesty, charity in disagreement, and the desire to listen to what a person is saying rather than assigning a group identity and letting that speak for her. How on Earth are these positions left or right, conservative or progressive? To interpret them as such strikes me as a contrivance, but you see this from left and right commentators alike. There is nothing… Read more »
Interestingly enough, I found Mr. MacManus much more sharp and good when he write about his own political side than when he writes about the right or about conservatism. Even if he had some very good articles bout conservatism in the past. How to say ? I think he has difficulty in doing what he rightly counsel to do : “you must know it in its “most plausible and persuasive form,” as presented by its most articulate spokespersons.” To quote him. It is evident that he has read many conservatives author, and prominent one. I may be biased – I probably am – but I feel that is own leftism comes from the gut (exactly what he says about young conservatists) and that that feeling overcomes its intellectual honesty. But to be frank I commend his efforts, and know that most people (and I would include myself) do not do… Read more »
Most so-called “members” of the so-called “IDW” have more in common with Thomas Paine than they do with Edmund Burke. Reacting against pro-radical subjectivity, reacting against anti-Enlightenment—in Sam Harris’s case, reacting equally against both PoMo’s right-wing manifestation, Trumpism, and PoMo’s left-wing manifestation, Woke-ism—doesn’t make one “reactionary”; if Bertrand Russell were alive today, he’d no doubt provide intelligent arguments against Woke-ism (and perhaps arguments in favor of the IDW, too?).
The entire problem with the Left is that they view the Right as The Other, as this essay amply demonstrates. It has all the warmth towards its subject as a Harvard doctor preparing to vivisect a tribe of gibbons. The Left must see the Right as fellow Americans instead of some kind of space alien with three eyes and tentacles. See: http://archive.is/QRJ6m
The Left would be much more palatable if they had reasonable ideas, or were reasonable themselves. But look at the dumpster fire that is the Democratic presidential candidates. Not a single one that appeals to Americans. Hillary Clinton is about to get back in the race, for God’s sake. Until this changes, I don’t see it getting any better.
Mr. McManus, interesting and thoughtful article. May I ask why you chose to focus on those with more liberal ideas engaging with those with more conservative ideas? It seems your points would apply in any situation where one is conversing with a person with disparate political ideas.
For the left to engage in meaningful discussion with the right, the left would have to end their hysteria and extinguish their hair fire and grow a few additional layers of skin. .