The uses and abuses of the extreme new progressivism
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
FOR ROUGHLY A decade-and-a-half—or since the election of the first Black president—it has been a testament of faith on the American right that Democrats want to destroy America. “You’re not going to have a country anymore,” Donald Trump warned the voters relentlessly in the event of a Democratic victory. The former president’s conservative apologists referred to his victory in 2016 as the “Flight 93 election”—after the desperate, suicidal sabotage of one of the hijacked planes on 9/11 by its passengers. Better to let Trump crash the American plane, they reasoned, than suffer the catastrophe of letting it crash and burn in the Democrats’ terrorist hands.
In the real world, it has been far from clear what Republicans were worrying themselves about. Democrats have certainly moved to the left over the past decade or so—but fairly modestly. They continue, for example, to elect the same sort of inoffensive centre-left leaders. There is very little to choose between Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden politically; all are moderate, patriotic, churchgoing pragmatists. By contrast, the few genuine radicals on the American left—such as Senator Bernie Sanders or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—are relatively peripheral figures. They are in no danger of taking over the Democratic Party, let alone America, any time soon. Outside America, they would not even be considered all that left wing. Their views—which leading Republicans describe as “communist”—would fit comfortably in the European social democratic mainstream.
The Republicans’ scaremongering about their opponents is mainly indicative of the conservative party’s own extremism. It has lurched far more dramatically to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left, a phenomenon political scientists call “asymmetric polarisation”. Yet, in the past year or two, the gravitation of a genuinely radical ideology from college campuses to the left-wing political mainstream has challenged that settled view of America’s partisan war.
The new ideology is ill-defined, subject to endless biased interpretation, and lacks even a settled name. Its adherents—including especially the activist left of the Democratic Party—call it social or racial justice activism, and consider themselves modern-day civil rights champions. Its critics call it reverse racism, or political-correctness-gone-mad, or sometimes “Wokeism”.
Black activists first used that term to describe the experience of waking up to America’s deeply embedded racial injustices. The new leftist ideology is a more extreme and complicated version of the same. At its core is a conviction that the deep economic disparities between America’s racial groups are explained by structural racism; that mainstream liberal verities such as free speech and meritocracy are supporting that unacceptable status quo; and fundamental changes are therefore necessary in the way that people think, speak and interact to correct society.
Those ideas have been a matter of scholarly debate for decades, attracting little opprobrium. For example, a hypothesis that the American legal system is structurally racist, known as Critical Race Theory, was devised at Harvard Law School in the late 1970s and ’80s by the African-American legal scholar Derrick Bell. The debate began to attract more attention around the early 2010s, when campus radicals began citing their concerns about institutionalised chauvinism as a pretext to police the speech of their professors and visiting lecturers. “Colleges have promulgated speech codes that are not only absurd in their results but also detrimental to the ideals of free inquiry,” warned the free speech champion Greg Lukianoff in the New York Times almost a decade ago.
Such campaigners complained of the “chilling” effect on free speech of this new campus radicalism. Speakers’ invitations to appear on campus were abruptly withdrawn, and were said to have been “cancelled.” Conservative speakers were especially liable to suffer cancellation—unsurprisingly, given the prevailing leftism of elite college campuses and the increasing political salience of the divisive cultural issues concerning race and sex that worried the campus zealots most.
Conservative talking heads, peddlers of grievance, naturally tried to score maximum political points from such instances. An on-again, off-again speaking invitation to Ann Coulter, a right-wing immigration hawk and activist, by the University of California at Berkeley made headlines on the right for months in 2017. Yet, the increasingly routine cancellation of more mainstream figures was even more striking. In 2014, the list of invitees to address college commencement ceremonies who subsequently had their invitation withdrawn, over some activist objection or other, included: Christine Lagarde (because students at Smith College, Massachusetts, objected to the development record of the International Monetary Fund, which she led at the time); Condoleezza Rice, a boundary-breaking former secretary of state; and Barack Obama’s then attorney general, Eric Holder.
That same year, the superstar comedian Chris Rock said he could no longer bear to play to sensitive college crowds. They had become “way too conservative … [in] their willingness not to offend anybody,” he complained. “You can’t say, “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” A much-quoted poll by the Pew Research Centre around the same time found that 40 per cent of millennials were in favour of suppressing speech deemed offensive to minorities. And the chilling that this pointed at has grown more intense. A poll of more than 4,000 college students for the Knight Foundation in 2019 found that 68 per cent believed students couldn’t say what they thought for fear of offending their classmates.
Democrats have moved to the left—but fairly modestly. There is very little to choose between Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden politically; all are moderate, patriotic, churchgoing pragmatists
The conservatives who decry this as profoundly illiberal are perfectly right. Liberals believe that individuals should be free to act in almost any way that does not impinge on the wellbeing—or liberty—of others. The new campus zealots argue that no one has a right to hurt their feelings. Whether or not the potential offence is caused intentionally or unwittingly, is irrelevant. Given, they argue, that racial and sexual inequities are embedded in everyday language, the “Unwoke”—will inevitably be unaware of the damaging significance of their words.
What caused this left-wing illiberalism to overrun American universities so rapidly? In a book entitled The Coddling of the American Mind, Lukianoff and his co-author Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, argue that overprotective middle-class parenting against a backdrop of national insecurity—fuelled by the post-9/11 threat of terrorism and the Great Recession of 2007-09—has spawned a generation of affluent white teens and young adults who prize “safety”, emotionally and otherwise, over other concerns. Thus, the Wokeish desire for a “safe space”, where no one will be made to feel excluded or emotionally uncomfortable. An obvious problem with this activist view is that life is not safe or fair; and being challenged to understand its dangers and inequities, and thereby develop coping mechanisms or solutions to it, is a rite of passage. On an intellectual plane, it is also—or, at least, was until recently—one of the great opportunities of an elite education.
AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES have long been hotbeds of left-wing radicalism. The father of modern conservatism, William F Buckley, made his name—in God and Man at Yale—by lampooning the prevailing New Deal progressivism he encountered on campus in the 1950s. One reason the extreme new leftism has supplanted that consensus is structural. The past couple of decades have seen a huge increase in the administrative staff of universities, and they tend to be even more racially attuned and censorious than liberal professors. As my colleague Idrees Kahloon has reported, “as [the administrators] headcount grew, so did their remit—ferreting out not just overt racism or sexual harassment but implicit bias, too.”
Wokeism’s graduation to elite institutions outside academia is in part a reflection of America’s educational divide. Mainstream media outlets, research institutes, rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, law firms and other bastions of the private sector are dominated by well-educated liberals, who have taken their campus obsession with sanitised language into their working lives. Other structural changes have supported this shift. For example, the rise of transgender identity as a major preoccupation on the left has amplified the concerns of those who would reform not only discriminatory laws, but even pronouns. In a different vein, the closure of local newsrooms has seen elite colleges emerge as the main providers of journalistic talent. A recent study of 150 interns at leading American newspapers found that 65 per cent were studying at the country’s most selective universities. The growth of social media—especially Twitter—has further supported the spread of Wokeism on the left. It has provided a left-wing echo chamber in which any dissenting view can be, if not cancelled, then viciously denounced.
Wokeism’s graduation to elite institutions outside academia is in part a reflection of America’s educational divide. Mainstream media outlets, research institutes, rights groups, law firms and other bastions of the private sector are dominated by well-educated liberals who have taken their campus obsession with sanitised language into their working lives
A recent series of confrontations at the New York Times between its veteran liberal hacks and a younger brigade who see little distinction between journalism and liberal activism has illustrated the effect of this cultural makeover. It has led to the departure of senior Times’ journalists and columnists, including Donald McNeil, James Bennet and Bari Weiss. The first, a veteran science reporter, was accused of using racially insensitive language (though he was not accused of racism); the third, a conservative columnist, resigned over what she described as the paper’s takeover by progressive activism. “Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions,” she wrote in disgust.
Wokeism has become a new front in America’s wider political fray because of how politically contentious such elite institutions are. As Buckley illustrates, conservatives resented the leftism of the academy for decades. So, the emergence of illiberal Wokeism has on one level merely handed them a fresh justification to express a longstanding grievance. This opportunity may be especially handy for mainstream conservative commentators such as Weiss. The populist takeover of the Republican Party had left them politically homeless. Yet, by hammering Critical Race Theory and other purported left-wing threats to free speech, such commentators have found a welcome niche in America’s political discourse, which is neither populist nor progressive.
Glenn Youngkin, who won Virginia’s gubernatorial election for the Republicans in early November, performed a similar trick. Having won the Republican primary by paying obeisance to Donald Trump, the former private equity baron then made a strong play for the millions of suburbanites that had abandoned his party out of disgust for Trump. Yet, his promise of quietly conventional small-government conservatism failed to excite them and risked turning off Trump’s voters. Youngkin therefore relaunched his campaign by vowing to resist the takeover of Virginia’s schools by Critical Race Theory. The spectre of left-wing extremism seemed uniquely able to unite the Republicans’ Trumpist base and the moderate suburbanites who had recoiled from it. Youngkin’s subsequent victory—in a state Joe Biden had won by 10 percentage points a year previously—has made going to war with Wokeism look like an ideal political strategy for any post-Trump conservative looking to attract the broader possible coalition.
Yet, how serious a problem is this new leftism really? Trump Republicans are inevitably warning that it threatens to destroy free speech and America as we know it. But this is not serious. Even setting aside their party’s long history of scaremongering, it is not at all clear what Trump and his cheerleaders even mean by “Woke”. They use the term indiscriminately to refer to Democrats, journalists, liberals generally.
Never Trumpers like Weiss offer a more serious critique of left-wing illiberalism. Yet, their place in the political wilderness also makes them prone to exaggerate the problem. And again, Youngkin’s tactics are illustrative of this. Virginia’s schools do not, in fact, teach Critical Race Theory. They do teach a version of history that places more emphasis on the historical legacy of slavery and the civil rights struggle—but that is a good thing.
Continue peeling away the politics that surrounds the issue and it can seem, though undoubtedly worrying or despicably illiberal at its worst, nothing like the existential threat such critics describe. America’s liberal institutions, though beset by a lot of Wokeish box-ticking and language policing on sensitive topics, are still liberal. The New York Times remains a great newspaper. The American Civil Liberties Union, though too unquestioning of the progressive demand to redefine biological sex as a state of mind, is still the premier defender of Americans’ right to free speech.
This may change, of course; no one could have predicted how far Wokeism has already seeped into the mainstream. And illiberalism is a threat to free societies however it strikes—from the left or the right. Yet, such left-leaning institutions are still far more moderate and liberal than they are illiberal and Woke, and it is far from clear that this will change. The political fight over Wokeism—real and feverishly imagined—is a different story. Republicans and Democrats seem certain to engage in it for years to come.