Freddie deBoer on the maladaptive political tactics of the Left

October 2, 2023 • 11:45 am

Freddie deBoer is a hard-core socialist: a man who would like to see a worldwide revolution in which workers assume all political and economic power, distribute stuff on the basis of need, and assume shared ownership of society’s infrastructure and production. Or so he professes in his latest piece, which isn’t on his own Substack but, getting wider exposure, appears at the Free Press. That’s because he’s using the FP to promote his new book, which came out September 5. As the FP introduction written by Bari Weiss states,

In his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, Freddie tackles a riddle: why, given the seeming popularity of left-wing causes like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, has the American left achieved so little? How have the goals and ideals that made Freddie a progressive become so far removed from today’s mainstream left? 

As well as diagnosing the problem, Freddie also offers some solutions. In this essay, adapted from his book, he offers his fellow progressives some advice. —BW

Here’s the book; click on it to go to its Amazon site:

Here are some of the Amazon blurbs, which aren’t exactly fulsome endorsements of the content, but do praise the book’s argumentation and style:

“This is strong stuff.” —Sam Tanenhaus, The New York Times Book Review

“[O]ne of the sharpest and funniest writers on the internet. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s always thoughtful and he pushes me to think. I hope his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, will be read especially by those on the left, because the left is where his heart lies and the failings of the left seem to break his heart most.”
—Pamela Paul, The New York Times

“DeBoer’s writing can be withering, as the best polemics often are, and few people will agree with all of his arguments. But his central point is important, whether you’re part of the political left, center or right: Calling out injustice isn’t the same as fighting it.” —David Leonhardt, The New York Times’s “The Morning” newsletter

“Freddie deBoer is someone I have long passionately disagreed with, but he writes like a dream, has a relentless intellect, and is always, always worth reading. Sharp, funny, brutal and able to skewer every conventional political platitude, he is particularly merciless tackling his own side.” —Andrew Sullivan

I would agree with the above if the book, which I haven’t seen, makes a strong case for worldwide socialism, something I don’t endorse. Fortunately, the Free Press piece below, which you can see by clicking on the headline, isn’t an argument for socialism but rather a collection of advice for the Left about how to achieve political progress. And this piece I endorse.

The overriding message of deBoer is expressed in his title: the Elite Left has screwed up social progress because they countenance nonsense, uses simple language that turns off (or baffles) the average person, and engages in identity politics when they should be concentrating on what unifies the oppressed: social class. I’ll give a few of deBoer’s arguments in bold (my own take), and support them with his quotes (indented):

A.) The Left needs to stop doing identity politics with ever-smaller groups and concentrate on larger groups, regardless of ethnicity, that suffer from similar problems. (Note that this was the message of Coleman Hughes’s TED talk that we recently discussed.) deBoer:

The problem with identity politics is that any given identity is always going to be smaller than the broader possible coalition you could assemble, and almost always smaller than you need to create change.

Consider police violence. Annually, a majority of people killed by the police are white. During the days of greatest public anger about George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, pointing out this fact came to be seen as wicked and racist; we weren’t worrying about white people in that moment, the story went. But white people have a large numerical majority in the United States, an even larger numerical majority among voters, and (as the anti-racist set will tell you) enjoy disproportionate power in our political system.

So, what’s the more effective message?

Police violence is a black people problem that only black people suffer from, a message that will convince a lot of white people that it’s not their problem? 


Police violence falls especially hard on the black community, but it hurts all of us, and, in fact, a majority of the victims are white? 

We need a national reckoning with this problem to stop the violence and save innocent people of all races. It’s in the best interest of all of us.

The second message avoids defining the problem as a “black problem.” We can still recognize, as a community of the like-minded, that police violence against black Americans is vastly disproportionate and an expression of racism. But when we engage in politics, in the work of trying to build the biggest coalition possible for making change, we should not pretend that police violence is only a black problem.

B.) The Left should be concentrating on class rather than race or ethnicity. deBoer uses labor unions as an example:

Labor unions have long been one of the best counterweights to corporate influence in politics. They are also traditionally a means of organizing that cuts across racial and ethnic lines. Obviously, shared participation in a union does not eradicate bigotry, and there is an ignominious history of unions perpetuating racial inequality. But it’s also true that, at their best, labor unions have helped workers (mostly men) of different racial backgrounds see their shared interest as workers. This solidarity could never fully erase racial division, but it could convince people that their similar needs could unite them around common purpose.

. . . Too often, the left today seems determined to take the opposite approach. Many people on the left seem so dedicated to dividing up the world into smaller and smaller constituencies. You might consider the narrowing of “people of color” to “BIPOC,” black and indigenous people of color. The purpose of that distinction is to underline the greater oppression that black and indigenous Americans have endured than other people of color. And they probably have. The operative question, though, is: What is the political value of dividing up progressive constituencies into smaller and smaller groups? How does that help anyone achieve any of their specific aims, including BIPOC people?

Organizing along class lines does not mean we should stop messaging about race, gender, or sexual identity. When the problem is racism, call it racism. Never shy away from confronting racial or gender inequality in explicit and frank terms. But orienting around class lines means we create the majorities necessary to actually do something about racism, about sexism, et cetera.

I think he’s right, as the present “identity-politics” strategy hasn’t really done much about racism or the lower educational and professional welfare of minorities. What it has done is made a lot of noise and chilled the speech of anybody who wants to discuss these issues.  In contrast, the great strides made in civil rights during the Martin Luther King era weren’t made by concentrating on class. Rather, they were made by appealing to the moral sentiments of people, who couldn’t abide actually seeing black people attacked with billy clubs, fire hoses, and dogs. Here I’d disagree with deBoer’s claim that the progress was achieved by “convincing people that their similar needs could unite them around common purpose”—unless you conceive of the “common purpose” as achieving a more moral society rather than a society in which more people had civil rights.

C.) The Left should stop using impenetrable and obscurantist jargon, or chiding people for using “harmful” language. 

Look at the use of the word bodies, most often heard in relation to black bodies. At some point in the past half decade or so, it became the fashion in left discursive spaces to speak about black bodies instead of black people—“this protest was marked by the presence of black bodies, the white gaze fetishizes black bodies, academia is inhospitable to black bodies.”

If I squint hard enough, I can sort of understand the rationale here; emphasizing bodies emphasizes corporeality, the physical reality of having a body, and in doing so underlines the threat black people are often under. I could, I suppose, see the utility of saying, “The police’s actions put black bodies in danger.” But too often, black bodies is just an awkward and exclusionary euphemism for people, and a term used to show that someone is a savvy, progressive person with the correct attitudes toward race.

I agree completely; the term “black bodies” is simply off-putting, but the elites have made it into not just an acceptable term, but a preferred term.  deBoer also criticizes those who go after “ableist” language like “I see what you mean” (yes, people do go after that!) or the term “field work”, which was deemed racist by the University of Southern California. Language policing accomplishes nothing.

D.) The Left should “stop waiting for the revolution”. deBoer uses the examples of gay marriage as an issue that took ages of hard work to come about, but eventually became the law. deBoer now adds universal health care to one of the issues necessary for a good society, but accomplishing that will take an even longer time and harder work. Performative wokeness and language policing won’t get it done.

 . . . if single-payer were passed tomorrow, we would have to start defending it tomorrow. We’d have to fight over how generous the benefits were. We would have to ensure that dental and vision benefits were covered. We would have to prevent the inevitable attempts by conservatives to tear down the system entirely or to make it considerably less generous, as they already do with Medicare and Social Security. There would be no rest.

This is, I concede, a depressing condition, an exhausting one. But there’s no alternative. And perhaps there shouldn’t be. I still yearn for revolution, but I now recognize that any revolution must be a permanent one, in the sense meant by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—that a perpetual revolutionary class must exist, remaining independent from the political machinery of its day and constantly pressing for a more radical future, even after great victory. This is the only way to truly secure the best good for the most people. We must see political success as an ever-receding horizon.

The steady and unromantic work of making the world a little better, one day at a time, has its own rewards. Wherever you are, there are likely organizations whose work is consonant with your values. Research them. Go to a meeting. See if they’re the kind of people you would be happy to work with. Then picket, or protest, or persuade, or stuff envelopes, or hand out leaflets, or bug your state legislator, or hold a sign by the side of the highway, or organize a tenants’ association, or raise money, or boycott, or what you will. You will not be able to see the change you make. But you will feel it anyway.

I agree with nearly all of these points, each of which shows how the Left, prodded by the elite Left, has fallen into maladaptive tactics. It often seems to me that people engaged in performative wokeness—whether it be policing language like field work, changing the names of of birds, toppling statues, or arguing that biological sex is a spectrum—sren’t really interested in changing society so much, as that’s too much work. It’s much easier to change the names of birds.

But such endeavors accomplish nothing.  Just think of the work it took to get the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts passed.  There was no arguing about terminology or bird names: there was marching, lobbying, writing, and endless speaking.  I may not agree with deBoer’s socialism, but I do agree that the Left, prodded largely by the “elite” Left, has lost its way, and has degenerated in a series of actions that, while good at calling attention to one’s virtue, is very bad at enacting the kind of social change that’s the virtue-laden deem necessary.

And the final lesson: you don’t have to be a liberal or a capitalist to think that wokeism is nuts, because even a Marxist-adjacent socialist thinks so, too.

18 thoughts on “Freddie deBoer on the maladaptive political tactics of the Left

  1. Thanks for this post and for accepting my screen ‘nym. The phrase: performative left — seems apt. Identity politics has been and continues to be a big problem for the Democratic Party, for example. It’s become self-parodying at best. The chilling of speech or “pc” (hate the term, originated in Maoist crapola, I think) may have started as an effort to have a modicum of politeness (see DicK Gregory’s old book title) and I recall in 4th grade (~1959/1960) my mom sitting down and lecturing us in no uncertain terms about religious/ethnic/racial descriptors as hate language — but — Egad! — what we have now. Oh, it’s woke-speak I guess. I have railed about the use of “woke” here because of right-wing appropriation of that term, but it’s not a hill to die on.

    We need reality politics as much as possible. Maybe people with disagreements on policy could at least talk to one another. I recall Michael Eisen’s slogan: Liberty, Equality, Reality — in his short-lived Senate campaign. (was that for Feinstein’s seat? Oh, if only!)

    The number of posts is dizzying. I can’t keep up but will drop in as time allows. Still picking my way through Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls. I just keep thinking of Brandolini’s law and its first corollary of lower limit.

  2. If people on the left want to understand the right’s resistance to universal health care, consider how much support the people who wanted to deny health care to the unvaccinated received. Most progressives seem comfortable with denying heath care to those who disagree with them, just as they are comfortable with denying free speech to those who disagree.

    1. I doubt that that is true. And if it is true for some it speaks zero to the notion of universal healthcare.
      To say that “Most progressives seem comfortable with denying heath care to those who disagree with them” is as absurd as saying “just as they are comfortable with denying free speech to those who disagree.”

      That there is some concern over whether people who willfully allow themselves to get sick, when there was a preventative measure available, should receive care ahead of someone who took as many preventative measures as reasonable is understandable. Especially when such care is limited.

      It is in no way comparable to people denying others speech if they disagree with it. I think the right has a fair history of denying free speech anyway.

      1. The ethical imperative for doctors when resources are limited is to provide care according to who can benefit most, not according to who is most deserving because they were the most obedient with preventive measures. Society can decide however it likes but it would have to insert its agents into the emergency department and the consulting room to enforce its decision, and not just assume doctors will do their dirty work for them.

  3. Freddie (Frederik) de Boer sounds so very Dutch, is he Dutch? Should we look at Dutch politics to see where he comes from? Or am I just imagining things?
    I agree with his analysis of where the left went wrong, I’m not 100% sure about all his remedies.

  4. I still yearn for revolution…
    making the world a little better, one day at a time,
    seem contradictory.

  5. There are even veteran Leftists (e.g., Adolph Reed) who speculate that woke mummery was contrived and spread by plotters of the Right in order to mislead and enfeeble the Left. Easy to see the attraction of this hypothesis, but after many years of observing the pop-Left, I have concluded that it is unnecessary. The pop-Left can be absolutely relied upon to enfeeble itself, century after century. After a while, one might even entertain the thought that self-described “Progressives” are the last thing the world needs for social progress to occur.

    1. Reed doesn’t claim wokeism is a right-wing plot. Rather, Kendian Anti-racism has been embraced by neo-liberals as it presents no threat to the capitalist economic system: under wokeism, it is fine if 80% of wealth is in the hands of the 1%, as long as 12% of the 1% is black. Neo-liberals didn’t create identity politics– they accepted it as an unexpected gift.


  6. deBoer: “We can still recognize … that police violence against black Americans is vastly disproportionate and an expression of racism.”

    Except that it’s not, since police-caused deaths are in proportion to crime rate, as people like Roland Fryer and Wilfred Reilly have shown. Yes, certain demographics are more likely to be killed by police. These include men (killed much more frequently than women), young adults (18 to 24-yr-olds are killed much more frequently than 58 to 64-yr-olds) and black Americans (compared to whites or Asian Americans).

    So perhaps the American cops are horribly sexist, ageist and racist? But then you factor in the violent-crime and homicide rates committed by those demographics, and you find it’s in proportion. Would you really expect police tasked with dealing with violent crime to kill as many 60-yr-old women as 20-yr-old men?

    1. Absolutely! My own group, the Committee for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Policing (CDEIBP) demands that we defund the police unless they get right to work and shoot more 60-yr-old women.

  7. DeBoer thinks the academic leftists should become “class-first leftists” again, and this corresponds to what Richard Rorty wrote 26 years ago:

    “The Vietnam War saw the end of the traditional alliance between the academics and the unions—an alliance which had nudged the Democratic party steadily to the left during the previous twenty years. We are still living with the consequences of the anti–Vietnam War movement, and in particular with those of the rage of the increasingly manic student protesters of the late 1960s. These protesters were absolutely right that Vietnam was an unjust war, a massacre of which our country will always be ashamed. But when the students began to burn flags, and to spit at returning soldiers, they did deeper and more long-lasting damage to the American left than they could ever have imagined. When they began to spell “America” with a “k,” they lost the respect and the sympathy of the union members. Until George McGovern’s defeat in 1972, the New Left did not realize that it had unthinkingly destroyed an alliance which had been central to American leftist politics.

    Since those days, leftists in the colleges and universities have concentrated their energies on academic politics rather than on national politics. As Todd Gitlin put it, we academics marched on the English department while the Republicans took over the
    White House. While we had our backs turned, the labor unions were being steadily ground down by the shift to a service economy, and by the machinations of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The best thing that could happen to the American left would be for the academics to get back into the class struggle, and for the labor union members to forgive and forget the stupid and self-defeating anti-American rhetoric which filled the universities of the late 1960s.

    This is not to say that those twenty-five years of inward-looking academic politics were in vain. American campuses are very much better places—/morally/ better places—than they were in 1970. Thanks to all those marches on the English department, and various other departments, the situation of women, gays, lesbians, African-Americans, and Hispanics has been enormously improved. Their new role in the academy is helping improve their situation in the rest of American society.

    Nevertheless, leftist academic politics has run its course. It is time to revive the kind of leftist politics which pervaded American campuses from the Great Depression through the early 1960s—a politics which centers on the struggle to prevent the rich from ripping off the rest of the country. If the unions will help us revive this kind of politics, maybe the academy and the labor movement can get together again. Maybe together we can help bring our country closer to the goal which matters most: the classless society. That is the cause for which the AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations] organizers are now fighting, and for which some of their predecessors died.”

    (Rorty, Richard. “Back to Class Politics.” 1997. Reprinted in /What Can We Hope For? Essays on Politics/, edited by W. P. Malecki and Chris Voparil, 138-145. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022. pp. 144-5)

    “The heirs of the New Left of the Sixties have created, within the academy, a cultural Left. Many members of this Left specialize in what they call the “politics of difference” or “of identity” or “of recognition.” This cultural Left thinks more about stigma than about money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed.
    This shift of attention came at the same time that intellectuals began to lose interest in the labor unions, partly as a result of resentment over the union members’ failure to back George McGovern over Richard Nixon in 1972. Simultaneously, the leftist ferment which had been centered, before the Sixties, in the social science departments of the colleges and the universities moved into the literature departments. The study of philosophy—mostly apocalyptic French and German philosophy—replaced that of political economy as an essential preparation for participation in leftist initiatives.”

    “Whereas the top-down initiatives of the Old Left had tried to help people who were humiliated by poverty and unemployment, or by what Richard Sennett has called the “hidden injuries of class,” the top-down initiatives of the post-Sixties left have been directed toward people who are humiliated for reasons other than economic status.”

    (Rorty, Richard. /Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America/. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. pp. 76-7+80)

    1. There was that and the increasing influence of feminism and ‘the personal is political’ and its continuing devolvement into post-modernist nonsense.

  8. de Boer’s book sounds interesting, but he has a radically wrong understanding of the ideas of Marx and Engels. The founders of modern communism did not hold that “a perpetual revolutionary class must exist.” They believed in a future society without classes, achieved through the historically temporary rule of the working class.

  9. FDB just doesn’t get it. Trans issues are the most important issues of our time to the contemporary identity-politics left. Letting biological men into women’s sports is the most important issue of of the day (for the identity-politics left). Gender affirming care and drag shows for pre-K kids are what the modern left is all about. FDB is just a throwback to another era.

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