We must firmly reject the notion that speech is violence. Dissent isn’t violence. Disagreement isn’t harm. That’s because politics isn’t an identity; it isn’t a denial of someone’s identity to disagree with them. We know this in our everyday personal relationships—we disagree with those we love most of all, on a regular basis.
Another option is available politically for those who wish to fight the authoritarian left: the formal expansion of anti-discrimination law to include maters of politics. Many states bar discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, age, and disability amongst other standards. Yet you can still be discriminated against based on your politics. If we wish to hold the authoritarian Left to its own standards—if we wish to use the bulwark of the law to prevent discrimination by limiting free association—then why give the authoritarian Left a monopoly on anti-discrimination law?—Ben Shapiro, The Authoritarian Moment
Though Ben Shapiro’s latest tome, The Authoritarian Moment: How the Left Weaponized America’s Institutions Against Dissent, is meant seriously, it is so full of internal contradictions and so lacking in self-reflection that it is often unintentionally funny in a way that rivals Trump at his covfefeing best. For example, early on, he chastises Barack Obama for campaigning on unity “for all Americans more broadly” and then casting that aspiration aside to pursue progressive policies. And yet, only a few pages earlier, Shapiro makes exactly the same move (though in the opposite direction): first, he calls for unity (waxing nostalgic about a time when the “core American freedoms” that he supports were “perceived to be beyond debate” and asking us to once more “agree on the individual freedoms that come with being an American”), and then casts that ideal of unity aside to advocate for a set of conservative policies (which Shapiro perversely describes as a “neutral” “moral” and formerly consensus view). Apparently, Shapiro believes that the only way to heal the US is to implement policies that have been rejected by a majority of Americans (as the number of votes cast for Democratic candidates suggests), on the laughably counterfactual ground that an invisible majority of Americans support the policies he likes—or, if they don’t, it’s not because his ideas are unappealing, but because a cabal of leftists—who are somehow simultaneously “idiotic” yet powerful, and small yet ubiquitous—have managed to delude that majority into rejecting policies that, deep down, they want.
Who Are the Real Victims?
To his credit, Shapiro’s book opens with a short discussion of the 6 January riots, in which Trump supporters, egged on by the former president and by prominent Republican politicians, attempted to use violence to prevent Joe Biden from assuming office. This event was the culmination of months of brazenly cartoonish efforts by Trump and his increasingly narrow pool of allies to lie, sue and bulldoze their way to “democratic” victory in spite of a clear Biden win. Shapiro minces no words in describing the rioters as “right-wing authoritarians” engaging in “criminal evil.” But rather taking the logical next step of ruminating on how the US conservative movement could have ended up supporting an openly authoritarian leader, he quickly turns the tables by asking, “What if the primary threat to American liberty lies elsewhere? What if, in fact, the most pressing authoritarian threat to the country lies precisely with the institutional powers that be?” The thesis of his book is that these institutions are dominated by the political left, who are determined to do everything they can to silence and marginalize conservative voices.
One of the remarkable aspects of The Authoritarian Moment is that Shapiro, who has spent a truly heroic amount of time whining about whiney victim culture, seems to have only just discovered intersectional theory. He concedes that Kimberlé Crenshaw has “posited, correctly, that a person could be discriminated against thanks to membership in multiple historically victimized groups.” But he then claims that American institutions are not discriminating against such groups, but against conservatives. As he puts it:
Perhaps the problem is that you attend church regularly. Perhaps it’s that you want to run your business and be left alone. Perhaps it’s that you want to raise your children with traditional social values. It could be that you believe that men and women exist, or that the police are generally not racist, or that children deserve a mother and a father, or that hard work pays off, or that the American flag stands for freedom rather than oppression, or that unborn children should not be killed, or that people should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
So, in a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan—there is an oppressive culture after all, but its conservatives who have been the victims all along.
This is not the only time that Shapiro has cast himself as opposed to hyper-partisanship on the left, while espousing hyper-partisanship in the other direction: he agrees that institutions oppress and victimize people, but insists that the victims are not people of colour, but conservative pundits and activists. He criticises the left as overly litigious, yet calls for laws and lawsuits to protect conservatives from discrimination. He sees postmodern academics as evil for advancing what he calls an intolerant and “illiberal” agenda, and yet says that agenda should not have been “tolerated” by their peers. He believes that scientific objectivity and truth exist—except when it comes to issues like climate change, in which case the left are merely voicing their excessively puritanical “opinion.” He concedes that we “shouldn’t be deliberately rude,” but calls those who disagree with him “evil,” “idiotic,” “annoying crap,” etc. He devotes two pages to litigating the question “is Dr. Jill Biden an actual doctor?”, before immediately criticizing the woke left’s “quibbling” over language mere paragraphs later.
Consequently, it is hard to take anything Shapiro says seriously. He is remarkably consistent only in being inconsistent. He even acknowledges this, arguing that, if the “authoritarian Left is going to utilize nasty tactics in order to force institutions to cave to them, [we] have to make clear that the Right could do the same.” And Shapiro is relentlessly one-sided: he almost never engages with any significant counterarguments to his positions. He devotes more words to describing the demerits of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the all-women remake of Ghostbusters than to analysing the ideas of Theodor Adorno, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez or the founders of Black Lives Matter. Indeed, his typical attempt at an argument consists of quoting someone out of context, insulting them or dismissing their opinion without explanation and then galloping on to the next put down. Despite Shapiro’s disdain for social media companies, his is truly a debate style made for the 280-character age.
The Problems With Meritocracy
Shapiro’s relentless one-sidedness greatly diminishes the impact of the few interesting arguments that he does make. For example, he rightly points out that cultural power has become concentrated in the hands of a few social networking firms—and that this is a serious problem. He even concedes that most individual firms are not philosophically committed to competitive capitalism, but are profit-seeking ventures that will encourage government regulation or intervention as long as it benefits them. But at the same time, he continues to assert the existence of a genuinely free market that runs according to the precepts of classical liberalism. This is sheer fantasy: even two and a half centuries ago, Adam Smith was already complaining that big firms engage in “conspiracy” to sway government policy: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
It is high time for Shapiro and his ilk to recognize that the free market is at best a mere Platonic ideal and at worst a square circle: it never has and never will exist in this world.
Another example of Shapiro making an interesting point and then failing to realise its implications is his justifiable indignation at the tendency of elite schools to produce a “new ruling class” that has “little in common” with the majority of citizens. Study after study has shown that more students at elite schools come from the top 1% of families than from the bottom 50–60%. Yet Shapiro insists that “economic strata [are] not the main divider” between the “ruling class” and everyone else. This decision to disregard class issues seems tactical, since examining such socioeconomic dimensions would entail asking serious questions about wealth inequality—questions Shapiro would probably rather avoid. Although Shapiro dismisses the work of Thomas Piketty, Piketty has done a much better job of exploring this topic. In Capital and Ideology, Piketty distinguishes between an elite and well-educated “Brahmin left” that is primarily concerned with cultural progressivism and indifferent to economic equality, and an equally elite and driven “nativist-merchant” right that is both pro-business and socially anti-liberal. Piketty claims that these two elite groups dominate politics in most major countries, in part through their control of the party system and that it is precisely these groups’ shared lack of interest in economic equality that has generated a sense of powerlessness and anger in many citizens.
This brings me to the main problem with Shapiro’s book: its fetishization of meritocracy. Apparently, for Shapiro, the best system is one that broadly espouses the socially conservative norms of the Reagan era for the sake of maintaining unity and stability, yet promotes a highly volatile meritocratic competitive environment—in which the most deserving are rewarded with success. (He rarely mentions the necessary corollary of a meritocratic system: the vast majority of people fail to rise to the top, and society’s blames their failure on their own inadequacies. Bafflingly, Shapiro implies that this arrangement is politically neutral or that there is a consensus in favour of it—an unproven assertion. He frames anyone who disagrees with the idea of a meritocratic system as being a disintegrationist or revolutionary. For example, Shapiro criticises Barack Obama and Joe Biden for undermining the meritocratic system through redistributive policies such as affirmative action: he sees such policies as giving some people an unearned and therefore unfair advantage, with the result that performance standards decline—deriding such measures as “wokist” and “insulting tripe,” “insulting to those who achieve in the meritocracy … even more insulting to those who are assumed victims of the system.” Why they are just “assumed victims” and not actual victims is never explained.
In fact, there is nothing especially anti-meritocratic about what Barack Obama and Joe Biden have been trying to achieve. Indeed, many of the efforts to provide resources and opportunities to historically marginalized groups have positively reinforced and celebrated the meritocratic system. The point of programmes like affirmative action has never been to produce equal social outcomes, but to provide equality of opportunity to people from all backgrounds. The idea is to remove or compensate for racist, sexist and other barriers and create a level playing field, while maintaining a competitive social system with winners and losers; those who wind up at the top will then presumably more closely mirror the diversity of the general population.
A meritocracy like that is better—more meritocratic—than what came before. But we need to be more radical still, and question whether meritocracy is a desirable system. Even if everyone could compete on a level playing field—an ideal that we are far from having achieved—it would still make little sense to describe some people as meriting vastly more than others, since so much of where we wind up in life depends on morally arbitrary circumstances and events. Even if no one were to fall behind as a result of systematic racism or patriarchy, random variations in natural ability, upbringing and a thousand other factors that have nothing to do with personal merit would be determinative. Thus meritocracy is, like the free market, a mythical ideal. It ignores the irreducibly complex interdependence of human life in order to prop up a utopian aspiration: namely, that any social system could possibly ensure that people get what they deserve. Rather than thinking in such terms, we should ask what people need in order to flourish.
The Authoritarian Moment resembles Shapiro’s earlier book, How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps, in being miles wide and an inch deep. In his rush to condemn as many of his enemies as possible, he occasionally hits on some valid targets. But Shapiro lacks both the patience and the self-awareness required to offer a rigorous conservative take on our present authoritarian moment and accurately diagnose why there has been a turn against liberal democracy in the United States and elsewhere. Shapiro is correct to suggest that many of us on the left would be wise to refrain from illiberal behaviour. But he is wrong to then fling at his audience the schoolyard taunt, “If you do it, then we should do it too!”