Progressives may have overreached
US Democrats are wrestling with sexy versus sensible for their path in 2020. The first strategy hopes to drive their leftist base to the polls with “progressive” positions and candidates. The second seeks to widen the tent with reassuringly boring centrists.
It’s an interesting debate in which I incline toward sensible, because I blame overzealous progressives, in part, for the presidency of Donald Trump. Troll me not, Enlightened Ones: I’m progressive myself! To prove it, I’ll show you right away how I possibly might be wrong. You don’t need binoculars to spot the tendency toward polarization amid the wreckage of politics today. And it makes a kind of sense.
In a situation where voter participation is high (as it historically has been among Jews in Israel, by the way), there is little way to change outcomes without persuasion (near-impossible these days). So politicians try to fool: liberals pretend to be religious; conservatives pretend to be compassionate. It sounds sordid and dishonest, but has the advantage (when this is advantageous) of driving politics to the center.
When a lot of people don’t vote (like in the United States where 44% did not in 2016), this creates an alternative to persuading and bamboozling: compelling your lazier supporters to get off their behind. That tends to heat up emotions, banish deep thought, and reward the most extreme.
It’s a vicious cycle: radical outcomes can cause a backlash, yes, but also despair. That’s most pronounced on the left, where people tend to overthink. Thus do you find youthful UK liberals staying home on Brexit referendum day, then blaming others.
I recently blundered into urging a bearded Tel Aviv hipster to vote in September, immediately triggering this pathology. “I’m not sure if I want to,” he said. I outlined the ways a bad government might do him harm. “What makes you think I don’t know?” he asked, with a distant, enigmatic gaze. Then don’t enable the status quo by checking out, I said. “How would I enable the status quo?” he replied, with airs of a man who wins the argument. It was like debating with a supercilious, stoned shrubbery.
If he were in America, he might support the Greens, even if the result was Trump setting fire to California with petrol made from flowers, arugula and trees. Which brings me to my point.
Trump famously lost the 2016 popular vote by almost 3 million, or about 2.2 percent, which is unprecedented for a winning candidate. He won the Electoral College system by turning Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan by a combined margin of under 80,000 votes, a fraction of a percent in each.
It was a tremendous statistical improbability in which, because of the razor’s edge, every factor was a decisive factor.
Green Party candidate Jill Stein won a total of about 133,000 in the three states, more than Trump’s margin. That alone turned the election: the Greens thus gave us the environmental disaster of the US pulling out of the Paris Accord, scrapping pollution controls and attacking wildlife wherever it may roam.
Sexism against Hillary Clinton also gave us Trump; clearly it accounted for the margin as well. So did residual racism against Obama, though he wasn’t running. So did Obama’s various mistakes, to be fair. Every factor was decisive, mathematically.
My contention is the backlash against elites gunning too hard on cultural “progressiveness” was also a factor.
I do not mean normal liberalism. In the United States the spectrum is distorted by a discourse that tars as radicals candidates who want social protections available in most other prosperous countries. Bernie Sanders is not a radical, and neither is Elizabeth Warren. I am talking instead about the netherworld of identity politics, safe spaces, trigger warnings, accusations of cultural appropriation and the whole related can of worms. My contention is that this stuff gave us Trump.
Of all the factors, this is one you can control and choose to neutralize. It’s a factor that I do not observe to be balanced by a corresponding positive vote. It was most profoundly a factor precisely among the lower middle-class who switched in 2016 from Obama to Trump.
I grew up in Pennsylvania, which Trump won by a measly margin of 44,332. I must have personally met that number of people who cannot stand talk about 63 genders and who would vote Republican for that reason alone, if they attached it to Democrats.
Sure, many of them are boors. But many also simply consider gender to be biological fact. Onto this progressives have mapped sexual behavior, which is fluid and diverse. Their critics would say that if you want to call masculine homosexual women a gender then you need another word for biological gender. I’m not sure we need to get emotional about such semantics.
And while I have no strong feelings either way, I do see a catch. As a youth, the 20th century liberalness I mostly adopted included a rejection of stereotypes, which felt modern back then: men and women, blacks and Italians, they’re all the same at the core, and should never be prejudged. What is “masculine” anyway?
Sure, stereotypes have statistical validity somehow (the Danes are rather tall; many Italians, loquacious), but they should be elegantly set aside: circumstances were usually their cause; they should never be assumed to apply; they need not define the individual. That perspective is consistent with Martin Luther King’s famous speech, yearning for people to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
To say you “identify” as something implies an acceptance of stereotypes. What is it to “feel” like a man? What is it to “feel” like a Kazakh? It can seem like traffic in non-individualistic, deterministic, near-reactionary tropes. Can I identify as a Kazakh? As an Apple iPhone X? Is there a limit to this?
A youthful friend informed me that the gay marriage issue was to his generation the most important thing by far, “same as civil rights for you.” I chafed at being considered to be 75 years old (though there may now be recourse: a 69-year-old Dutch fellow recently sued for the right to identify legally as 49). But I also tried to argue that while gay marriage is just and right it falls short of the accordance of basic equality to the descendants of slaves, the correcting of a disgrace that also saved lives. Surely, there must be hierarchy of progress. My friend wasn’t buying it; he shook his full head of hair, and called me out of touch.
Recounting this to a bunch of academics I was told in all seriousness that I have no right to any view on any subject because as a middle aged heterosexual cisgender (that is a word) this was my “time to listen.”
Could anything clash more bleakly with King’s vision than such intolerance? Everyone has the right to a view. How else would there be discourse? How else would there be intellectual progress? How else would there be dinners?
How else would there be humor?
What a dull, dispiriting world these progressives are whipping up! Always on the hunt for a feeling that was hurt. Policing any statement with a modicum of edge. Putting you in boxes not of your device. Rejecting anything that might stray from the dogma of the herd. It may keep HR types in business, but snuffs the flame of knowledge out.
The transformation of campuses into intellectually rigid “safe spaces” is why the right can get away with agitating against universities (most conservatives told Pew in 2017 that universities are a negative influence on society). It is why the Republicans can put forth aggressively know-nothing candidates and hardly pay a price. It is why all over the world ordinary people rebel against the left (John Cleese is eloquent on this point).
Yes, it is wrong to cry “fire” and to deny the Holocaust; some speech should be censured. But there is a price to be paid for going too far. The price is that political parties that want wonderful things, fair and practical things, like gun control and a proper health care system in America, like a merely reasonable degree of inequality, are struggling to be heard. They have far too hard a time getting heard by the very people they would help.
The arc of history bends toward justice, but the masses follow at a crawl. Look around you in the streets of Miami, Madrid and Malina; you will see it. The great can be the enemy of the good. Forget this truth, progressives, carry on as you have done, and for now more Trumps is what you’ll get.
That’ll be OK with me, I guess. Reality need not be my cage. I will identify as a person in a world where decency and reason can prevail. You’d better respect this. If you don’t, I swear I’ll identify as a New York Times columnist. Will you quibble with me then, when I’m a cultural elite?
(A version of this story appeared in timesofisrael.com)