So far 2019 hasn’t been easy on the left, and neither has the left been easy on the left.
After a convoluted series of confessions and denials which eventually saw Virginia’s Democratic Governor Ralph Northam admitting to once wearing blackface in the 1980s, prominent Democrats walked a red carpet of outrage on Twitter to affirm their stance against the apparently unforgivable actions of a college student. Activist groups on the left and every current Democratic presidential candidate chimed in, urging for his resignation and calling for a swift hand-off of Northam’s seat to African-American lieutenant governor and rising political star, Justin Fairfax.
But what started as an unsurprising display of contemporary left wing decorum, quickly devolved into a political cartoon in which Virginia Democrats fell like dominoes when held up to their own standards. Two days later, Fairfax, the next in line to succeed Northam in the event of a resignation, was then accused of sexual assault, a claim since seconded by yet another woman. And before his underwear drawer could undergo scrutiny, second-in-line Attorney General Mark Herring promptly admitted to also wearing blackface once in 1980. Now, in an incredible turn of events, the Democrats could potentially lose governorship without an election, with Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox being third in the line of succession.
Prior to Trump and other Republicans jumping on this opportunity, it was the left themselves that turned this into a punitive spectacle before party leaders had to collectively soften their tone on resignations, revealing more double standards than moral standards, in fear of losing gubernatorial control of the state.
A week prior to the events in Virginia, the third Women’s March came and went without much media fanfare, as the demonstration’s leadership was plagued by division, in-fighting, allegations of anti-Semitism, and far too many mentions of Louis Farrakhan than is healthy for a women’s rights agenda. Instead of steady momentum for the movement, this year’s national march goes down as yet another example of a left-wing effort purportedly committed to solidarity and combating injustice, yet compromised by its own internal combativeness and lack of unity. In her somber New York Times preview, “The Heartbreak of 2019 Women’s March,” Michelle Goldberg recognizes this divisive trend in left-wing hashtag activism, noting how the march has become “a depressing study in how left-wing movements so often implode in the digital age.”
Both situations are indicative of the left’s propensity to not only upend themselves in the course of an ostensibly well-meaning effort, but to also provide ammunition for their political rivals.
Indeed, left cannibalization has become so commonplace, especially among adherents to 21st century identity politics, that it is on its way to cementing a new constitution for leftism: You are committed to social equality, you want to eliminate racism and sexism, you are all for the toppling of the patriarchy, you hate Trump, and if you are indeed left-leaning enough, you have more than likely occasionally practiced your social justice agenda on someone else on the left, turned on leftist friends, directed your anger inward, and strictly judged a not-as-progressive-as-you progressive with the same austerity you would someone on on the far right.
It’s an increasingly left-eats-left world, but it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. After Lyndon B. Johnson’s own party failed to make easy his tenure in the White House, he concluded that the only difference between a cannibal and the left is that “cannibals don’t eat their own friends.” And it’s only gotten worse in the age of social media, where hit-and-run avatars can easily trigger emotionally fueled family feuds on platforms poorly designed for careful discourse. Liberal professors have lost jobs, cultural institutions have been boycotted, careers of progressive figures have been derailed and movements like the Women’s March have been hindered all because of left-on-left acrimony that always prefers to punish as a sign of demonstrating social justice superiority, rather than participating in open dialogue to come to terms with difference. All you have to do is Google “Bret Weinstein protest video” to get a good whiff of what discourse looks like to a particularly combative broad sector of politically active leftists. Weinstein, a vocal Bernie Sanders supporter and former biology professor at Evergreen State College who describes himself as “deeply progressive,” faced intense protests and subsequently resigned in 2017 after he questioned a school activity that called for white students and staff to leave campus.
Somehow, despite the prevalence of the identity-obsessed left attacking their own, it’s rare to come across anyone one of them who seems to recognize that this practice is so obviously damaging to the possibility of actual political change. As long as there is a perceived righteous cause, any form of the left holding others on the left to higher standards is justifiable. When a progressive Black Lives Matters activist was asked why she lead a protest that successfully shouted down a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle in 2015, the rationale was familiar: to hold progressive politicians accountable, citing Sanders as “complicit in white supremacy” and adding that “if he’s our best option then I’m burning this down.” It makes sense to hold those in your own ranks to a higher standard to a certain degree, but not if it means that the only war the left is winning is the war against friends.
Meanwhile, the right doesn’t seem to have the same problem, which results in a problematic formula in which the right comes away with political opportunities as the left is busy devouring itself.
As political alliances were being destroyed over whether you were “With Her” or a “Bernie Bro,” Trump was coasting through the primaries and on his way to the White House.
While the right has been unified in gerrymandering electoral geography, the left has been busy gerrymandering labels for others on the left, creating toxic taxonomies as tags like neo-liberal, Democrat, center-left, and anything else not radical enough, sometimes casting any voices of dissent as members of the alt-right.
While Al Franken, a progressive icon in the Senate, was forced to resign under the pressure of his own party for pretending to touch the boobs of a conservative radio personality, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court with full Republican support despite much more severe allegations.
The day when the “Access Hollywood Tapes” dropped during Trump’s campaign, it felt like an immediate victory for the Democrats. How could anyone on the trail survive that? But he did survive it. His supporters who were appalled by the recordings stated their disagreement to his particular words and continued to support his larger platform. For better or worse, the survival of a Democratic candidate under similar circumstances is unthinkable, but there is no rule that states that everyone must play by the same rules.
For the left, Trump has become that recurring nightmare figure of one’s own powerlessness whom you punch and punch but nothing ever happens to him. Seemingly impotent, many on the left who endure him like a daily trauma will instead exercise their protest against those it will actually and effectively work on: their allies.
Since Trump’s election, the left has fully embraced its resistance designation, which historically hasn’t been a bad thing. But with resistance in hyperdrive, there is a good deal of resisting itself, and too many on the left are more focused on what is being done to them (via the patriarchy, the election, capitalism, social injustice, etc) and less on what they are doing to each other. It would be unthinkable to anyone with a hint of leftism in them to imagine that they had anything to do with the election of Donald Trump, yet their self-destructive radicalism, their zero-sum scapegoating of other progressives, and their disdain for the “deplorable” non-college educated working class certainly didn’t help keep Donald Trump out of the White House. If the situation is ever going to change, the left needs to start looking at their own contributions to our current bitter, chaotic and polarized politics instead of seeing it as something being done to them.
The effects of all this are nowhere more volatile than in the left’s recent wave of protest, censorship and boycott culture, where we’re seeing an increasingly negative form of activism, encouraged by social media often producing swiftness of mobilization over depth of argument. In 2002, Liz Featherstone, Doug Henwood and Christian Parenti wrote “Action will be Taken,” a manifesto in response to the Iraq war protests that noted the troubling anti-intellectualism and lack of analysis in leftist activism. There words are more relevant today than ever. In the manifesto, they point out the growing number of “activisimists,” whom they characterize as having “the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade.” Today it feels as if the outraged left has been completely overtaken by this activisimist ideology, as leftist movements shed the core of their independent thinkers, which Featherstone, Henwood and Parenti’s manifesto foresaw: “Thoughtful people find this censorious hyperpragmatism alienating and can drop away from organizing as a result.” The practice of boycotting and protesting as a form of productive resistance is being forsaken for protests that shout down opponents and complain until contrarian speakers are canceled on campuses. Those who commit misdemeanors against codes of social justice conduct — political enemies and allies alike — are shunned without terms or opportunity for restorative justice, and, through passive collectivist censoring, are forbidden to speak. It is a form of activism high on negation, dismissal, and justifications against discourse. This fanaticism creates environments of fear, where people are afraid to speak their minds lest they get banished to the cornfield. And it’s not just anonymous avatars battling it out on social media; some of the worst examples take place within friend groups, small communities, or other close kinships that are not rampant with mega-corporations, heinous policies or fascists, but often other progressives worried about their own cultural survival under a collectivist mindset in a politically turbulent time. Even the closest political kin are subject to being boycotted, or shunned, or censored, or otherwise scapegoated and punished as surrogates of a system that harms, but is out of arm’s reach. The party of tolerance is now the party of bottomless zero tolerance policies, and in the current heated cultural wars, if you can’t punish someone who doesn’t believe in the same things you do, you can at least feel a sense of power by wielding it against someone who does.
So how does the left avoid itself? One place to start might be to stop turning into everything that once made conservatives so unlikable. The left has replaced conservatives in being the anti-intellectual tribe sticking their morals into everyone else’s business, and the quest to fix every perceived injustice all of the time could be resulting in a peeling back of ground gained on cultural issues.
Some prominent activist voices on the left have been calling for a more civil, intellectual approach to activism, one that isn’t moralizing or evangelistic. Sarah Schulman’s most recent book, Conflict is Not Abuse, outlines a number of strategies for moving beyond punitive measures in blaming or assuming victimhood. She writes: “making an accusation doesn’t make us right, being angry doesn’t make us right, refusing to communicate doesn’t make us right. In fact, all those things could make us very wrong.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah, recently remarked that the left should meet disagreement with debate: “I’m just a person who thinks the answer to bad speech,” she said, “is more speech.” Both Adichie and Schulman are interesting examples, as they have both been targets of friendly fire; Adichie faced severe backlash from social justice activists and the trans community for saying that “trans women are trans women,” and Schulman survived accusations of being a Jewish anti-semite for her Palestine activism.
These voices of reason seem to be drowned out by the outrage, and without face-to-face negotiation of disagreements, we’re likely in for more “heartbreaks” like the 2019 Women’s March, or situations like what happened at Middlebury College in Vermont last year, when liberal professor Allison Stanger was given a concussion after she was attacked by students during a protest over her willingness to participate in a debate with conservative author and and political scientist Charles Murray. Stanger blamed both students and enabling faculty, and was resolute in her decision to appear with Murray, stating ‘‘Shutting down speech is an invitation to violence.” Murray’s call to humanity in a reflective essay she wrote for the New York Times is worth remembering as the plague of sectarian paranoia rages on. She wrote of the controversy: “Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me. Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. They couldn’t look at me directly, because if they had, they would have seen another human being.”