Jon Chait on Left-wing illiberalism, and why it needs to be called out

In an increasingly woke New York Magazine, there are two breaths of fresh air: Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Chait. Chait, like me, calls himself a liberal but spends a not inconsiderable amount of time excoriating the excesses of the Left, an endeavor he extends and explains in this week’s column (click on screenshot to read it):

Chait’s theme is based on a couple of examples of Authoritarian Left social-media hounding. Several involve something that seems to have become anathema to the Left: calling out those protestors, especially in antiracist demonstrations, who commit violence, arson, looting, and so on. Although nobody explicitly approves of this behavior, even mentioning it now brings a “yes but. . .” from certain segments of the Left. I myself have been criticized for decrying violence (mostly on the grounds that “it was minor and look at Trump on the other side”), and I won’t dwell on the kinds of ripostes that are used not to defend violence but to minimize it.

As I’ve mentioned before, though, such tactics are not only immoral, but counterproductive. Work by Princeton professor Omar Wasow has shown that, in the Sixties, black-led protests that were nonviolent tended to sway people towards Democrats in the areas of the protests, while violent protests turned people towards “law and order” Republican candidates. Wasow claims that his data show, for instance, that this effect may have swung the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.

Well, I haven’t read Wasow’s paper, but let’s assume, since it was peer reviewed, that it’s worth considering. One who considered it was David Shor, a Democratic data analyst who committed the sin of tweeting out Wasow’s results:

Although that tweet is innocuous, it was the beginning of the end for Shor, as the social-media opprobrium began. Chait notes:

It is easy to see why a specialist in public opinion whose professional mission is to help elect Democrats while moving the party leftward would take an interest in this research. But in certain quarters of the left — though not among Democratic elected officials — criticizing violent protest tactics is considered improper on the grounds that it distracts from deeper underlying injustice, and shifts the blame from police and other malefactors onto their victims.

And so, despite its superficially innocuous content, Shor’s tweet generated a sharp response. To take one public example, Ari Trujillo Wesler, the founder of OpenField, a Democratic canvassing app, replied, “This take is tone deaf, removes responsibility for depressed turnout from the 68 Party, and reeks of anti-blackness.”

Shor replied politely:

But after a short review, Shor’s employer, Civis Analytics, fired him. He was accused of all sorts of ridiculous things, as Chait recounts:

Over the weekend, “Progressphiles,” a progressive data listserv, announced it was kicking Shor out, according to another member of the group. Shor, who did not respond to comment, has been a member of the group but has not posted there in two years. The entire reason for his removal is the controversy over his “racist” tweet:

David Shor, a member of this community, knowingly harassed and bullied another member of this space. In response to a well-deserved call in over a racist tweet, he encouraged harassment that led to death threats instead of choosing to learn and grow from his mistake. We as the Progressphiles Moderators, professionals in this industry, and as people, absolutely condemn this behavior. It is unacceptable to make people on this list and in this community feel unsafe for calling out wrongdoings. We cannot begin to decolonize our minds if we do not create safety for those fighting against white supremacy. It is on all of us to do this work, but especially to show up for those already doing it and make sure they are safe. By not acting, we are perpetuating the racism and sexism we know exists on this list and in our community at large. As such, we have removed David Shor from Progressphiles.

Think of it this way: the vast bulk of capitulation of the Left to the Authoritarian Left comes from one thing: the desire to avoid being called a racist, the worst word someone on the Left can imagine.

Another of Chait’s examples is Lee Fang, identified as “a left-Wing Intercept reporter.” Fang’s sin was issuing a correction to an oft-misscited statement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

This ignited a bitter fight on Twitter with Akela Lacy, who also works for the Intercept, and Fang was called a racist. He apologized, and so far has not been fired.

Chait’s last example is that of Tom Cotton’s editorial in the New York Times calling for the military to be inserted into cities where there were demonstrations as a possible means of preventing violence and damage. I thought it was misguided, impractical, and wrongheaded, but black Times staffers made the claim that the editorial put them in danger. It’s a sign of the Times, so to speak, that these claims are actually taken seriously rather than being dismissed with a horse laugh. The paper, which originally defended its decision to publish Cotton’s piece, backed off, put a disclaimer on it, and then fired James Bennet, the editorial page editor.

As I noted, the reasons for backing off on the editorial: its tone and its claims, were hypocritical, since the paper’s Left-wing editorials regularly have “contemptuous” tones and often make factually dubious claims. Chait agrees:

What made this explanation so strange and obviously jury-rigged is that nothing like this standard has ever prevailed at the Times op-ed page before. The Times publishes overstated, contemptuous, and even factually questionable columns routinely. Nor does the paper normally treat minor factual quibbles as grounds to withdraw publication. Driving home the double standard, the Times news story about the op-ed erroneously described Cotton as having called “to send the military to suppress protests,” when he had argued explicitly the opposite. Cotton rejected the “equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters,” and urged, “a majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.” (The story corrected this significant error three days later after critics highlighted the incongruity.)

Cotton’s column broke open a longer-standing debate over whether the Times should run conservative columns. Numerous progressive critics, both inside the paper and out, either frontally oppose inviting any conservatives to contribute, or else hold those columnists to a standard of accuracy and cogency far higher than they hold more ideologically congenial writers, whose factual and logical errors draw little controversy.

. . .The most concerning thing about the Cotton episode is the logic that was given to pull the column in the first place: “Running this puts Black people, including Black @nytimes staff, in danger,” a phrase repeated thousands of times on social media.

The line of reasoning here is perfectly coherent. We can easily imagine a world where Cotton’s op-ed persuades Trump to deploy troops, who then kill protesters and reporters, many of them black. But we could envision a similar sequence resulting from any number of op-eds. Suppose the Times had given an op-ed to an advocate of repealing Obamacare at the crucial moment, persuading John McCain to supply the deciding vote to eliminate it. Millions of people would have lost insurance, and as a direct result, tens of thousands of them would have died.

Many other policy debates have life-and-death consequences: the environment, unemployment, and so on. On nearly all these issues, the brunt of policy failure falls disproportionately on black Americans, who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, losing their insurance, being harmed by pollution, and other threats.

Whenever I hear that words make somebody feel “unsafe,” and those words aren’t violations of the First Amendment, I tend to dismiss the argument. Or rather, “feeling unsafe” is not an argument at all, it’s an emotional reaction.

And so Chait decries the conflation of words with actions, one of the problems with the Authoritarian Left. As Chait notes, “The norm of suppressing a belief because somebody saying it makes them or others unsafe has left a trail of absurd or horrifying episodes in academia and elsewhere that many progressives insisted didn’t matter because It Wouldn’t Happen Here. And yet as this norm spreads, its central flaw has never been resolved: Any definition of “unsafe” that aims for a Tom Cotton will hit a David Shor or a Lee Fang.”

Finally, Chait explains why he criticizes the excesses of the Left, and he does so far better than I could have. Yes, I get this kind of criticism all the time. Why do I spend so much time kvetching at the Left when Donald Trump is clearly a more important danger to the Republic? My answer is that you can find criticisms of Trump everywhere in the liberal media, that I share the fear of this narcissistic moron, but I prefer finding a niche that isn’t fully occupied. It’s not interesting to me to simply echo what everyone else says, putting it in my own words. Further, I truly believe that the excesses of the Left—and that includes violence committed by those demonstrating (or joining a demonstration) for a just cause like the murder of George Floyd—will drive moderates into the camp of Donald Trump. So I prefer to do my bit there rather than accomplish almost nothing by adding my voice to the huge choir on liberal media mocking and criticizing the “President”.

Chait is on my side here:

The preconditions that permitted these events [the social-media demonizing and the firing of liberals] to go forward are the spread of distinct, illiberal norms throughout some progressive institutions over the last half-dozen years. When I wrote about the phenomenon in 2015, a common response was to dismiss it as the trivial hijinks of some college students, a distraction from the true threats to democratic values. It certainly was (and remains) true that the right poses a vastly greater danger to liberalism than does the far left. My own writing output reflects this enormous disproportionality. It is also true that the intended (if not always actual) target of the left’s illiberal impulses — entrenched systems of inequality — remain an oppressive force in American life, and that the cause to dismantle them is just.

Nonetheless, it is an error to jump from the fact that right-wing authoritarian racism is far more important to the conclusion that left-wing illiberalism is completely unimportant. One can oppose different evils, even those evils aligned against each other, without assigning them equal weight.

. . . Without rehashing at length, my argument against the left’s illiberal style is twofold. First, it tends to interpret political debates as pitting the interests of opposing groups rather than opposing ideas. Those questioning whatever is put forward as the positions of oppressed people are therefore often acting out of concealed motives. (Even oppressed people themselves may argue against their own authentic group interest; that a majority of African-Americans oppose looting, or that Omar Wasow himself is black, hardly matters.) Second, it frequently collapses the distinction between words and action — a distinction that is the foundation of the liberal model — by describing opposing beliefs as a safety threat.

I’d add to this what I said above: a third argument against the Left’s illiberal style is that it drives moderates or those on the fence toward the Right. As the Left eats its own, so those in the middle look on and their thoughts turn towards Trump as someone who can stop the madness. This is precisely why the violence of Leftist demonstrators is not a good thing for either the Left or for the country.

And I’ll finish by adding that on top of the examples Chait gives of people demonized for calling out violence, we can probably add Andrew Sullivan, whose New York Magazine column two weeks ago, most likely damning protestor violence, was apparently censored and went unpublished. It’s a fine kettle of fish when you get censored, or called a racist, for simply criticizing violence.


19 thoughts on “Jon Chait on Left-wing illiberalism, and why it needs to be called out

  1. History is littered with liberation movements that started with legitimate grievances, turned violent, and ended up with a more authoritarian regime than the one they toppled. If people do not nip the left’s excesses in the bud, as per Chait and the venerable Jerry Coyne, we may be in the midst of such a movement.

  2. The comments by PCC(e) made me feel unsafe.
    Oh dear, pass the smelling salts.

    BTW, I would expand the comment of Daedalus
    a little. Sometimes, liberation movements with legitimate grievances don’t so much
    turn violent/authoritarian as they get hijacked by devotees of the latter. The classic case was the Bolsheviks’ hijacking of the February Revolution, both with phony
    sloganeering (all power to the Soviets, etc.) and then with a straight take-over. Tactical deployment of fake slogans has become the model for Left regressives everywhere.

    1. It’s not the mere “tactical deployment of fake slogans” that makes such groups dangerous; it is the power to censor opposing viewpoints that makes them so.

      The illiberal left’s cramped conception of free speech hearkens back to a darker period in US history that occurred nearly a century ago when the US Supreme Court — in cases like Gitlow v. New York and Pierce v. United States and Whitney v. California — adopted a “bad tendency” test that allowed speech to be censored if it might eventually persuade someone to engage in some noxious conduct. The Court reasoned that censors need not wait until the danger was imminent, but could “suppress the threatened danger in its incipiency” (similar to how, as Chait explains, the illiberal left seeks to suppress speech that could eventually “pose a danger” to someone’s “safety”).

      Those SCOTUS cases were decided by reactionary justices against Leftist speech, usually over the stinging and eloquent dissents of Justices Brandeis and Holmes (whose own views on free speech, under the sway of Brandeis, had steadily grown more liberal). It was Brandeis’s view of free speech that eventually prevailed, years later, under the Warren Court in 1969, in Brandenburg v. Ohio.

      The three incidents of speech suppression discussed by Chait in his “Intelligencer” column (and other incidents by the illiberal left like them) do not raise First Amendment concerns, of course, since they involve private companies or individuals or media outlets rather than censorship by the government. Yet such speech suppression remains inimical to American conceptions of free expression.

    1. Taibbi’s always a breath of fresh air, and a pleasure to read, even on the infrequent occasions I disagree with him.

  3. There are so many things to call out on the Ctrl-Left. One, which is very telling, is that it seems no one who is Woke or whatever seems to revise or even qualify their thinking about anyone who has been accused of wrongthink.

    Any person who honestly seeks comportment with the truth will soon be able to recall occasions where they discover a need to revise their views, and walk back what they said or wrote about someone. But the Woke don’t seem to do that, and that says a lot about their interest in the truth.

  4. What we are witnessing in the wake of the George Floyd murder is the emergence of extremist groups and individual that see the current moment as a golden opportunity to foist their agenda on others, being those people of a liberal bent, but not particularly sympathetic to it, but too scared to say so. The strategy being employed is right out of the extremism handbook: intimidation and harassment. So far, the extremists have only resorted to verbal abuse, but the effect is the same as if physical violence had been used. Since real racism has been exposed, it is easy enough to accuse anyone not adhering to the party line of being another George Wallace. Actual liberals, most of whom shy away from the street fighting that politics require to be successful(such is the nature of moderates), admit self-shame and promise not to repeat their egregious racist remarks. Before long, the radicals will become the sole spokespeople for what started out as worthwhile cause that all liberals could rally around.

    As I’ve stated in previous comments, the emergence of radicals from moderate movements is commonplace in history. Moderates never seem to learn this lesson. Hence, they are unprepared to counter the radical blitzkrieg. The ludicrous accusations made by the radicals can only help Trump, not that they care. I would not be surprised to learn that many of them prefer Trump to Biden. It is so much easier to agitate against the former than the latter.

  5. I totally agree. It’s really frustrating to hear this kind of thinking from our own side. It threatens all the good work that has been done by liberals. The Left and the Democrats strive to be the source of good ideas and good governance. Instead, good people are losing their jobs. Who put these people in charge?

    I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out but the bullying done by the Woke has a remarkable resemblance to Trump’s bullying. Of course, Trump’s purity test is allegiance to himself. Both sides aren’t interested in policy debates but fealty. Those who are deemed insufficiently loyal are hounded out.

  6. I can’t understand why Shor was fired for linking to research. Or the use of ridiculous language to criticize the link [“decolonize our minds”!?)].

  7. I was listening to a stream with the lawyer Robert Barnes speaking about various legal issues recently.
    He claimed that civil rights cases he was pursuing at various times became substantially more difficult to win, to persuade a jury, whenever there were any kinds of violent protests around those times.

  8. The reason we need to fight the excesses of the left is because the excesses of the left is a reason why some in the middle vote Republican. Fighting the excesses of the left is fighting for that middle vote.

    1. Yes, and allowing stronger arguments for our causes to be heard. Shaming people into supporting your cause is ineffective, just like violence.

      At least I hope it is. Actually, a serious study of the relative effectiveness of the Ctrl Left’s tactics would be interesting. Sounds like it would be hard to do though.

  9. In regard to Paul Topping’s comment, recall that Ctrl-Leftists deny liberals any credit for their “reformist” works. It may be a fact of history that Robert F. Wagner was fighting for the rights of labor when he was a State Senator in Albany even before WW1—when Lenin was trading hot air with other exiles in Switzerland. But it is an article of faith amongst Ctrl-Leftists that the Wagner Act and other New Deal legislation was somehow forced on the USA by the heroic street pressure of “Communists and Socialists”, most of which exists only in the Ctrl-Left dreamland. But fantasies like this
    underlie the insistence on street pressure by
    individuals who disdain democratic (small d) political life.

  10. I don’t always agree with Chait and don’t have much sympathy for Cotton, etc. But Lee Fang is an excellent reporter and the world is a better place for it. Unless there is something that we don’t know, what we see from Fang’s colleague is a hysterical over-reaction that should be completely unacceptable to any fair-minded person. I believe Taibbi is exactly right in calling this out.

    Incidentally, I wish more people read Taibbi – he is one of the finest polemicists in the written word today. His reporting for the Rolling Stone in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis is just excellent. We need more reporters like Fang and Taibbi. All the best and more power to them!

  11. In order to create a more inclusive, tolerant society we must ruthlessly crush dissenting opinions. That’s the paradox of modern progressivism.

  12. I agree in general that the violence attending the protests is counter-productive. Some of it is due to infiltration by alt-right extremists intent on fomenting violence in order to discredit the protest movement, but some is clearly coming from the actual protestors. However, Kimberley Jones’ viral video is pretty compelling in her explanation of the protesters who have turned to rioting and looting.

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