Bret Stephens scolds the Left

November 20, 2020 • 10:30 am

You may not be eager to listen to advice from a conservative about how the Left is tearing itself apart, but all Stephens is saying in his latest NYT column (click on screenshot) is what I’ve been saying for a while: it’s not going to help the Left further its agenda if it keeps engaging in internecine struggles between the “progressives” and the centrists. Since Americans have just proven themselves more willing to support the centrist program, you can’t argue that the centrists should step aside for people like Bernie Sanders or “the squad”. (I hasten to add that some of their ideas are good ones, like universal healthcare and parts of the Green New Deal, but their program as a whole won’t help the center hold. Nor will demonizing everyone who voted for Trump.)

Ergo, I suggest that the best tactic is not only to adopt a less-extreme Democratic agenda, but also (and this may be futile) try compromising more with right-centrists (compromise with most Republicans, though, is hopeless). I’ll let you read Stephens’s op-ed yourself, and then I’ll give a few quote, and let you hash it out while I’m getting drilled:

What, today, is leftism, at least when it comes to intellectual life? Not what it used to be. Once it was predominantly liberal, albeit with radical fringes. Now it is predominantly progressive, or woke, with centrist liberals in dissent. Once it was irreverent. Now it is pious. Once it believed that truth was best discovered by engaging opposing points of view. Now it believes that truth can be established by eliminating them. Once it cared about process. Now it is obsessed with outcomes. Once it understood, with Walt Whitman, that we contain multitudes. Now it is into dualities: We are privileged or powerless, white or of color, racist or anti-racist, oppressor or oppressed.

The list goes on. But the central difference is this: The old liberal left paid attention to complexity, ambiguity, the gray areas. A sense of complexity induced a measure of doubt, including self-doubt. The new left typically seeks to reduce things to elements such as race, class and gender, in ways that erase ambiguity and doubt. The new left is a factory of certitudes.

And what? A conservative shows some humor?:

For the new left — and the publications that champion it — the loss is much greater. It makes them predictable, smug and dull. It alienates readers. A current article on the New York magazine website is titled, “I Think About Björk’s Creativity Animal a Lot.” For gems such as this they got rid of Sullivan?

But I think Stephens has a point, not just about Björk, but about the Left in general. The polarization that’s occurred, largely at the instigation of the take-no-prisoners “progressives”, has made liberal political progress harder. If you’re white but not a racist (yes, they exist, contra Robin DiAngelo), being called a racist or someone filled with unconscious bias makes you take a harder stand on “anti-racism”. Similarly, damning all who voted for Trump as “racists” and “deplorables” is a losing strategy, particularly given the large numbers of women, blacks, and Hispanics who voted for Trump this time around. This is why Biden keeps harping on his desire for compromise and comity, and emphasizing that, Republicans or Democrats, we’re all Americans.

Perhaps this is pie in the sky. But it’s worth a try. Stephens:

The apparent inability of many on the left to entertain the thought that decent human beings might have voted for Trump for sensible reasons — to take one example, the unemployment rate reached record lows before the pandemic hit — amounts to an epic failure to see their fellow Americans with understanding, much less with empathy. It repels the 73 million Trump voters who cannot see anything of themselves in media caricatures of them as fragile, bigoted, greedy and somewhat stupid white people.

It also motivates them. The surest way to fuel the politics of resentment — the politics that gave us the Tea Party, Brexit and Trump, and will continue to furnish more of the same — is to give people something to resent. Jeering moral condescension from entitled elites is among the things most people tend to resent.

Which brings me back to the flight of the contrarians. As the left (and the institutions that represent it) increasingly becomes an intellectual monoculture, it will do more than just drive away talent, as well as significant parts of its audience. It will become more self-certain, more obnoxious to those who don’t share its assumptions, more blinkered and more frequently wrong.

To the enemies of the left, the self-harm that left-leaning institutions do with their increasingly frequent excommunications is, ultimately, good news. The mystery is why liberals would do it to themselves.

Of course the Right is far from immune to this kind of intranecine fighting (remember the “Lincoln Project’?), and they engage in their own form of demonizing their opponents. But we can be better than our opponents.

48 thoughts on “Bret Stephens scolds the Left

  1. “Now it is into dualities: We are privileged or powerless, white or of color, racist or anti-racist, oppressor or oppressed.” Stephens is right, the progressives’ disavowal of binaries mysteriously disappears in these instances.

  2. With you on almost everything here, including the idea that centrists control the electorate more than the far left. However let me add some nuance. You say that one “can’t argue that the centrists should step aside for people like Bernie Sanders” but “hasten to add that some of their ideas are good ones.” I think much of the electorate (including but not limited to many Bernie voters) could embrace left-of-center ideas on health care, wealth inequality, and environmental sustainability, while they would reject the identity politics stuff. You almost have to break today’s left into those two halves before measuring them against the electorate.

    1. You’ve hit on an important point, which I’ve mentioned in previous comments. One must distinguish between leftist policy positions and Woke demands. For example, two-thirds of Americans support a wealth tax on billionaires. Republicans have been successful in labelling leftist programs as socialism even though most Americans support them. This is because most Americans have no idea what socialism is except that it is somehow bad. What Democrats need to do is make it clear that they don’t support defunding the police (while calling for its reform) and forthrightly and loudly condemning rioting and looting. They must all relentlessly argue that their economic and social programs will help the middle class. We’ll see if they are able to do this, but based on their track record, I wouldn’t count on it.

      1. In particular, “social democracy” is not “socialism”.

        “Social democracy” = fair taxation for wealth redistribution within a basically capitalist, free-market economy.

        “Socialism” = most aspects of the economy are communally- or state-owned.

    2. Bernie Sanders’ biggest mistake is attaching the socialist label to himself. On his key policy points, he often enjoys support of the American majority. His own lack of awareness about just how anathema the word socialism is (and the fact that the average Joe doesn’t care to hear the distinction between the “big S” and “little s” kinds) along with the right wing’s success is propagandizing any social program as the next coming of Stalin or their tiresome talking point about Venezuela leaves the progressive economic left dead in the water. Sprinkle in the woke left and we have a full blown disaster. We need to build coalitions and majorities. So toss the identity politics and lean into the economic populism. And for the love of Thor, they need stop calling social democracy socialism, or even democratic socialism! These ideas represent neither of those systems.

    3. The left-right axis was probably always too simplistic, but using it in today’s climate makes for an incomprehensible discussion, for the reason you mention. The left end of the spectrum forks into ID and social democracy, and there is currently antagonism between these two traditions as seen by, for example, the emphasis on reparations in the former camp and the emphasis on universal social programs in the latter. The future stars of the Democratic party (or maybe even a newly formed third party) will be those who can convince both minority groups and the broad working class that social democratic programs will be implemented equitably, and coupled with strong anti-discrimination efforts. Bernie, especially in 2020, tried to convince the electorate that he would do just this, and he showed this program to be quite popular. Let’s not forget that he was by far the clear favorite among young people.

      It is also a testament to the young Bernie crowd that the vast vast majority realize the importance of compromise with centrism when no better option is available. ‘Bernie or bust’ was a fringe element in both 2016 and 2020, after all.

  3. I think Bret Stevens does what most political columnist do. Talk about the political groups that annoy him most. For an old straight republican it is probably the far left liberals and writing down all of their defects is pretty easy to do. What would be better in all the political chaos would be to find solutions. Maybe he will some time create the perfect political opinion we all should follow and that will solve what? If in fact, Trump came within 80,000 or so votes of capturing the election, that should only tell all of us, this is a defect that must be fixed. Coming up with all the problems of the far left that may have lead to this close call solves nothing. It is much easier to fix the regulations than to fix the voters.

    1. Randall’s solution is the fix the other side, we’re just doing great. I beg to differ. One huge turnoff to people who eventually voted for Trump is the whole Defund the Police debacle. I dont know how many votes went the other way because of it but I’m pretty sure it’s a non-trivial number.

      It is highly likely that Biden lost Florida and two Miami-Dade representatives for two reasons. One was apparently late and poor organizing. Messaging to Hispanics in general was not well done nationwide. That is the campaign’s and Democrats in general fault.

      But the relentless calls for socialism by the far left, as well as their outright endorsement of communism (Stalin wasn’t so bad you know), in general and Sanders “Castro did great job with education and really tried hard” BS ruined any chance of turning out Cuban-Americans for Biden.

      Yeah, some of the voter suppression efforts made things difficult. But 152m+ Americans voted for president and 10m more of them voted for Trump this time than last. If you think that’s just a regulation problem, you haven’t delved into the issue much.

      1. So tell me expert, how are you going to fix the far left. I hear lots of talk but nothing in the way of action. If you read what I said at all, I offer fixing the damn electoral college – get rid of it. Let the popular vote determine the election like every other election in the country. Get it.

    2. Fixing the electoral college issue is a dream; to count on that is impractical. As has been noted elsewhere recently maybe we have to pay heed to the center and move ourselves toward it, rather than live or die on the margin.

    1. Yes, forgetting the grave mistake they made by voting for this guy is the easy part. Letting him off the hook and ignoring some of the actions he took is much different. What is that thing that keeps coming up – no one is above the law. If Trump walks away that phrase is simply a lie and we must stop using it. The worst of his actions were right here in this country and he should be dragged into court on them just like anyone else. Self pardon is not in the deal. What he has done overseas seems to be ignored but it may be just as bad. Right now he is removing half the military in Afghanistan. He removed all the players in the Pentagon just prior to this. He also did it without any prior warning to our own people, let alone the many foreign allies who have people over there. This is just like criminal activity on his part and it barely makes the news. It is just more of the Trump show.

  4. The left should think about a counter factual. What would the election have been like if coronavirus didn’t occur? Trump would be more popular but by how much?

    Imagine if Trump was only 0.4% more popular (and Biden was 0.4 less popular.) Trump wins the election by getting Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia. If his popularity was up by 2% (which seems conservative to me), he would have won the popular vote plus Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada.

    Coronavirus saved the Democrats. Without it they would have lost to an egotistic, corrupt, lying buffoon.

    1. Coronavirus could have been an electoral boon to Trump, were his brain not so badly broken — if he had become, as he briefly proclaimed himself to be, a “wartime president.”

      The one real bump in his approval rating Trump received during the course of his presidency was immediately after the pandemic’s outbreak, but he almost immediately pissed it away with through the incompetency of his incoherent response and through his compulsive need to grab credit for anything that goes right (even where no credit is due) while doing everything in his power to shirk responsibility for anything that goes wrong. Other world leaders whose populations were ravaged by the virus enjoyed an increase in their popularity.

      Americans always rally around their president in times of war or other national crisis. (Look what happened with W after 9/11, even though he did little noteworthy beyond yelling through a bullhorn from atop a pile of rubble.) Trump would have received a similar boost in popularity had he played the cards he was dealt with even a modicum of competency, but he was constitutionally incapable of doing so.

  5. The Right is certainly not immune to this kind of intranecine fighting. The most interesting feature of Tom Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas” (2003) was his account of the bitter local fight between moderate Republicans and the wild, hyper-virulent reactionaries, later on the Tea Party faction. The latter appears to have won in Kansas (although I think the split remains). This outcome might be a bad omen for the other side of the political spectrum, suggesting, as it does, a version of Gresham’s Law in party politics .

    1. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more. Thanks to the Tea Party the GOP has been over the rainbow in fantasy land for a while…

  6. Hm… A worthy subject dealt (by Br.St.) in a cursory and superficial way as an intelligent rightist ought to do striving to win the argument.
    Is the level of unemployment of any relevance to the subject? On the other hand, Social Cohesion is the core assumption of any lefty, anywhere in the world. A rightist says: “I take society as is, and you bloody commy, better lump it”

  7. First, I am amazed by how many people voted for Trump in both elections but I follow politics pretty closely. I know how bad Trump really is and the damage he’s done to our institutions. Most of his voters see him as just another politician and are oblivious to what he’s done behind the scenes. Most voters, on both sides, are fairly low-information. Trump and the GOP have made this worse through their campaigns to sow doubt in mainstream media. These are problems that will take a long time to fix, if they get fixed at all. Let’s put this aside.

    The problem with the Left’s platform right now is that it is too much wrapped around identity politics. Everything seems to be focused on fixing racism, electing more females and POC into office, and other problems that have a strong connection to identity. The Woke pretends these issues are all that matters. But they aren’t all that matters to voters. Not by a long shot.

    It might be that Biden, Pelosi, and others realize these things but they also realize that they are going to have a very hard time if they confront this truth. Tough times are ahead for the Left and the Democrats.

    The Republicans have a much easier time. They really only care about being re-elected. This makes it much easier to stay on message. They have their identity too but it is about being pro-business, pro-gun, pro-family, macho, pro-military, and dissing the libs. Their platform is mostly intended only to support this identity message. Trump has shown the GOP that one can actually change the platform radically (eg, pro-globalism to anti-globalism) as long as one sticks to the identity message.

    If I were advising Biden, I would tell him to go with a theme that everyone can get behind and that doesn’t involve identity: “Make Government Work Again!” Tie every policy to that theme, even those that have traditionally been pursued via identity politics. For example, if someone asks about nominating women and POC into his administration, tell them that they have, and will continue to do so, as part of hiring the most qualified for the job. What they should not do is make that seem like the main goal. Clinton did that and Kamala Harris does it too. My advice to them is to let others laud that progress when talking to those for whom it is primary but keep quiet about it themselves.

  8. … Stephens has a point, not just about Björk …

    That New York piece about Björk seems like an embarrassing refugee from Seventeen magazine, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly woke.

    1. I love Björk! I just can’t take too much of her at the same time.

      Here’s a haiku I wrote:

      Björk sings, and I dream
      Of hot springs, diffuse shadows,
      And arctic tan lines

      1. I’ve got no beef with Björk; just thought the piece was a bit puerile for a grown-up’s magazine, which New York still claims to be.

        (BTW, nice haiku.)

  9. I don’t know how to not demonize everyone who voted for Trump. They (along with the woke left) are the answer to the Fermi paradox – no civilization can advance to colonize galaxies (much less control global warming) when half the citizens are guided by primitive instincts that poison the works.

    That’s right, Trump voters are ruining the whole galaxy.

    1. Trump’s base is a cult, which means almost all of the Republican Party. Trying to get its members to think rationally is a difficult as arguing with an ardent religionist (many of the cult belong to both groups). This fact should pretty much end the idea that we are on the dawn of an age of enlightenment. Religion will not disappear, even though it is now declining (which doesn’t mean this trend will continue). Nor will disappear widespread beliefs in conspiracy theories, particularly when public figures such as Mad Rudy espouse them.

      The NYT has posted an op-ed in which the author chronicles how he tried to get through to Trump supporters. He has failed and is in a state of despair.

  10. “The apparent inability of many on the left to entertain the thought that decent human beings might have voted for Trump for sensible reasons — to take one example, the unemployment rate reached record lows before the pandemic hit — amounts to an epic failure to see their fellow Americans with understanding, much less with empathy.”

    Umm…COVID!?! No other reason need be discussed. Trump’s response to the pandemic and the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths is reason enough to not vote for him. I’m appalled at how normalized his handling of this has become. Any “decent human being” who voted for Trump after witnessing what has transpired the past ten months is morally bankrupt and unreachable. Understanding and empathy? Absolutely not.

  11. Many good points. But I don’t absolve anyone for voting for Trump. To address the example of the economy, the Easter Bunny could have been president and the pre-covid economy would have been good. the long term damage done in terms of long term debt by the Trump tax cut, and the fact that taxes on low to mid incomes will go *up* in 2021 (but not for high earners), negates the argument. And what other alleged bright spots are there among a litany of horrors foist upon us by Trump (even without the covid disaster)?
    I do agree the Dems are needlessly fractured by narrow minded progressives, and we should continue to resist that. But again, avoid the false equivalence. The corresponding damage on the right is an order of magnitude worse since they *hold power in our government* and stand to obstruct any good Biden can do, just as they did with Obama. And 70% of Republicans will gladly support them and buy into Republican-generated disinformation. Tie your shoes, but keep your eye on the real enemy.

  12. Imagine we take turns on who pays for dinner. On the Republican‘s turn, the Democrat pays it all. On the Democrat‘s turn, it‘s however always “compromise“, which means splitting the bill in half. American commentators want to tell me, in earnest, that this arrangement is fair to them, especially Republicans (surprise!)

    We have at least two different ways to make sense of the recent elections.

    Version 1: the centre won against the extremes. In this version Trump and his voters are extremists, especially those loyal to him despite witnessing his incompetence for a term. They are thusly pronounced beyond-the-pale. This version is favoured by the Never Trumpers and future GOP that wants to move on from Trump, as well as the Biden-Democrat mainstream and their news flak from msnbc to NYT. It‘s also the version favoured by everyone invested in the (former) status quo. The proposed arrangement is that Republicans never compromise, and Democrats water down everything to make it acceptable to Republicans. This is the trajectory of perhaps the last 30 years.

    Version 2: the past elections were actually about establishment versus anti-establishment and protest votes, because despite great successes and bailouts for the rich, things didn’t go too well for ordinary Americans. Trump voters are not all supremacists but have legitimate, working class, blue collar grievances, and could have been won over by a left wing anti-establishment candidate (like Sanders). This was however carefully prevented by the Democrats who are once again, such bad luck, in the position that they can‘t do much for the lower rungs — as always. Such a bummer! In this version Democrats should do more left wing (income equality, class etc) politics, but won’t. Hence, they say, everybody must accept Version 1, as always.

    While not mutually exclusive explanations, they are zero sum.

  13. Part of the problem is that groupthink on all sides is exacerbated by the social media platforms which thrive on conflict and simplistic memes. I pray for the day when people leave twitter, facebook, youtube en masse, but rather than returning to TV news (itself a major propaganda outlet- WMD’s, etc.), decide to rely on more serious outlets, without the world-narrowing manipulation and polarization that owes to the shenanigans of Silicon Valley.

    Substantive reforms like a shorter work week and free public higher education are, I think, prerequisites in the public attaining a modicum of intellectual self-defense against all of this manipulation and stopping the monoculture.

    1. I like free higher education. It’s economic benefits would far outweigh its cost. Of course its cost is large and tangible while its benefits are much harder to measure and would take time to be realized in any case. Right now, I would say its main benefit would be to counter the GOP’s efforts to keep voters dumb. Unfortunately, I could see Mitch and Trump both calling it an evil plan that was totally unfair to Republicans and making it stick. Besides, isn’t it socialism? 😉

      1. They have already made it quite clear regarding this here in Texas. From the Texas Republican Charter:

        With regard to critical thinking, the Republican Party of Texas document states: “Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

        This was from 2012 but I doubt it has changed.

  14. Quite correct that Uncle Bernie & Co. of the DSA make a bad tactical error in identifying themselves with “Socialism”, as if attaching the word “democratic” in front of it cancels history. History, after all, includes the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which gave us not only the Moscow trials but also the Katyn massacre (perhaps known to the 9 million Americans with names ending in -ski or -icz); and it includes the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany with its Berlin Wall, not to mention the other East European regimes of the late-lamented Socialist Bloc; and also the impoverished dictatorship/personality cult of Cuba (rather well known in Florida); and the economic collapse of Venezuela (witnesses to which can also be found in growing numbers in Florida); and even the exploits of the Baath Arab Socialist Party in Syria, which might explain the substantial Republican vote among American Muslims.

    I know well that the Republicans have long used these cases as bogies with which to defame all social-democratic reforms, from national public radio to national health insurance. But this doesn’t mean the Republicans invented the bogies out of whole cloth. The Left has some introspection to perform, along the lines of serious thought about the character of state control, and the dangers it entails. In the interim, reform proponents who hope to win elections might begin by substituting “New Deal” or even “social democratic” for “Socialist” when they discuss attainable reforms. It is worth recalling that Leon Blum, of the 1930s Parti Socialiste in France, used language exactly the inverse of Uncle Bernie and the DSA: he insisted that his party wanted merely to follow the lead of the American New Deal.

      1. i get daily emails from Medium of articles of interest to me, and they are mostly either math or super-woke stuff, but you may be right.

  15. Stephens wrote

    “…might have voted for Trump for sensible reasons — to take one example, the unemployment rate reached record lows before the pandemic hit — amounts to an epic failure to see their fellow Americans with understanding, much less with empathy. It repels the 73 million Trump voters who cannot see anything of themselves in media caricatures of them as fragile, bigoted, greedy and somewhat stupid white people.”

    I would suggest if someone voted for Trump because unemployment was at record lows, they are either stupid or ignorant (or both), of economics and the power (or lack) of the president to effect the economy in such a way and more specifically, being able to point to any of Trump’s implemented policies that did keep the unemployment rate low.
    If pointed to tax cuts I would remind Congress does the budget, the president either approves or not.

    It reminds me of the Simpsons episode “Much Apu About Nothing”:

    Homer: Ah, not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
    Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
    Homer: Thank you, honey.
    Lisa: By your logic, I could claim this rock keeps tigers away.
    Homer: Oh, how does it work?
    Lisa: It doesn’t work.
    Homer: Uh-huh.
    Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock!
    Homer: Uh-huh.
    Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around here, do you?
    Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
    Lisa reluctantly accepts Homer’s money.

  16. All I hear from most at this site on the issue of the far left, the woke, is complaints and crying. Oh, why do they do this, why don’t they do that. Oh look at how unfair and judgemental they are. What does that accomplish? Where does it go. When a bunch of so-called democrats do nothing but complain about the far left but have no solutions, no fixes where do you go. Maybe you should vote for the republicans or Trump. At least then you have taken some action. When a democrat continues to say you are a democrat and then does nothing but complain about part of your own party, you seem lost. Join something else.

    1. Do what I did: donate to the Lincoln Project. I have no data, but I have faith (!) that they made a difference.

  17. “…decent human beings might have voted for Trump for sensible reasons — to take one example, the unemployment rate reached record lows before the pandemic hit…”

    Translation: “I disagree with the chancellor on the Jewish question, of course, but you must admit he’s done wonders for the economy, and he’s made the trains run on time!”

    To clarify, I am NOT saying that Trump is Hitler. What I am saying is that he has done horrific damage to our democratic norms and institutions, and I have a very hard time not feeling disdain for “decent people” who chose to overlook all of that because of the economy/their 401(k)/unemployment rate. And that’s not even accounting for the fact that Trump has done precious little for the economy; he just coasted in Obama’s wake until the pandemic hit.

  18. I can see it now: d-bags are going to comb the archives and lambast old, pre-woke documentaries like American Movie for someone asking, “Does everyone have brown gloves?” instead of “Do all the Black People [a la Evergreen College] have brown gloves and water?”

  19. Democrats have to come to terms with the fact that 70+ million people voted for Trump, and Republicans have to come to terms with the fact that Trump lost. Also, does anyone think that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee he would’ve beaten Trump–I doubt it.

  20. Ever since the ’60s protesters managed to get the Civil Rights Act passed and the Vietnam War ended, the Left has felt inadequate by comparison unless it can do something of similar importance. This has led to a lust for self-righteousness that sweeps all common sense away before it. Clearly the Peter Principle applies to political movements as well.

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