The Woke, or the Reactionary? How Liberals Can Choose Between Two Unappetizing Options
By many measures (such as money made and eyeballs drawn to his words), Andrew Sullivan is the most successful blogger (and now Substacker) of the past 20 years. On Friday, he sounded grim about the state of American politics:
We will stagger on, as Rome and Weimar did. In democracies which are slowly being undone, things carry on, until they suddenly don’t. And between the successor illiberal ideologies of the white nationalist right and the anti-whiteness globalist left, I really, really don’t want to pick.
On the one hand, Sully has a point. We traditional liberals have discovered that our notions of liberty and civility have suddenly become wildly unpopular with the bases of both major political parties. Those of us who, for example, believe in the notions of free speech, free minds, free markets, free movement of human beings across borders, and the freedom to arrange one’s private life largely as one chooses are mocked and derided by left and right alike.
My friends on the left have grown bewilderingly contemptuous of dissent. Convinced that white supremacy is the Original Sin Which We Must Eradicate by Any Means Necessary, they argue that the defense of free speech is itself fundamentally racist. Without a hint of irony or self-awareness, they talk about replacing individual conscience with a blind willingness to follow the directives and pronouncements of the oppressed. The infringement on privacy is staggering.
Just last week, a hack revealed the identities of those who had contributed to the defense fund of Kyle Rittenhouse, the young Kenosha vigilante. Many of those who donated were police officers from across the country. In Norfolk, Virginia, one officer who donated and sent Rittenhouse a message of encouragement was placed on leave, with the mayor declaring “the alleged statement and action by a member of Norfolk's Police Department is alarming and by all means not consistent with the values of our city or the standards set for our employees.
In other words, to the Woke, the private sympathies of public servants are not permitted to be private. It is not enough to behave well when on duty; one’s charitable donations (and one’s browser history, and one’s conversations with one’s spouse) must align with a particular political narrative or you will be canned. In the fight against White Supremacy, the state has a moral obligation to investigate your thoughts. Extremism in the defense of justice is no vice.
That so few of my friends find this terrifying, and that most find these intrusions into donation histories to be welcome, valid, and long overdue, is beyond depressing. I’m enough of an historian to know that every revolution reframes its most brutal excesses as just and reasonable necessities. I know too that my grandchildren’s generation will almost certainly be as scandalized by what we are doing now as we are when we read about the cruelties of McCarthyism. The promise of a future admission of wrong is cold comfort indeed.
As frustrated as I am by cancel culture (and those who insist, disingenuously, that it is a chimera -- “a fig newton of the fervid right-wing imagination” as one lefty pal put it), I cannot imagine abandoning the Democratic party. The right-wing has a long and inglorious history of suppressing speech: I’ve done enough battle with conservatives fretting about the Vagina Monologues or Pornhub or “Drag Queen Story Hour” at the local library to believe for a single minute that Republicans are reliable allies in the fight for unfettered liberty. These are the folks who burned their Nikes because the shoe company gave money to Colin Kaepernick. These are the very people who invented cancel culture, and are now indignant that the malign weapon they created has turned on them. They are no friends of individual conscience. They don’t want a glorious, cacophonous public square any more than the Woke do.
Andrew Sullivan declares himself stuck between two equally unacceptable options. I sympathize with his view, but am willing to say that one option remains considerably less acceptable than the other. Only one party has gleefully rejected both science and evidence to embrace a ragbag of risible conspiracy theories about COVID and elections. Only one party remains in thrall to a vulgar, inarticulate megalomaniac, with all but a few of its members (a warm salute to Liz Cheney, please) utterly unwilling to stand up to a bloated blowhard. Only one party wants an America largely closed to the outside world, urging us to turn our backs on allies and refugees alike. Only one party refuses to accept that climate change is man-made, catastrophic, and our collective responsibility to address. Only one party wants to ensure that women do not remain sovereign over their reproductive processes.
We have two bad options, but one is, to my mind, demonstrably worse.
I am heartbroken and anguished at the rising tide of illiberalism on the left. I worry about what my children will be taught about the American past, and I worry about the preening censoriousness of those who want the heterodox and the contrarian canned and deplatformed. I worry about the frantic, compulsive, obsequious reckonings which demand we condemn our ancestors and our long-dead heroes. I worry about the popularity of wildly simplistic reductions of history to a single analytical frame. White supremacy doesn’t “explain everything,” any more than class struggle, or the triumph of Christ crucified, are adequate lenses for understanding all that was, is, and will be.
I want us to stop firing people we don’t like. I want us to allow the offensive to flourish. I want open borders, open minds, openness to new ideas about gender, and the freedom to push back against all those opennesses without career-ending consequences. I want everyone’s standpoint recognized as equally valid.
Neither side is going to offer any of these things. One side, however, will work to ensure abortion access, even if it mocks and slurs its devoted founder. One side will work to end the barbarism of the death penalty. One side will work, however imperfectly, to welcome refugees and migrants. One side will work to protect public lands from being despoiled – and will take seriously the existential threat of climate change – even if it repudiates the man who created modern environmentalism. (I despise what Planned Parenthood has done to Margaret Sanger, and the Sierra Club to John Muir, but the work must still be done.)
One side is much more likely to understand that science is real, and vaccines work.
One side has not placed all its bets on a grunting, golfing human id.
When I look at the left I see folks using dangerously illiberal means to address very real problems. When I look at the right, I see folks eager to return our society to a time when those very real problems simply weren’t addressed at all.
When the stakes are this high, I know which side I must choose. I remain a Democrat.