That One Side Would Like to Utterly Destroy the Other Side Seems Significant, To Me

Democratic messaging debates are bizarre because one group has been empowered to terrorize those they disagree with

Ezra Klein interviews David Shor about his recent rise in visibility, his particular take on Democratic policy and messaging, and the debate over “popularism.” It also glancingly mentions Shor’s cancellation, for expressing limited and polite skepticism about the political outcomes of post-George Floyd riots.

Klein references this controversy, as he must, but it’s kept separate as a piece of flavoring for the larger argument, rather than central to the discussion that follows. (It’s framed as one of the media’s favorite “ironic” tales these days, that Shor was actually helped by being cancelled - which far from being a defense of canceling is as damning an indictment I can think of.) But I find Klein’s disposing of that story so quickly to be quite odd, as it seems totally germane to the topic of who will determine the future of the Democratic party. What could be more relevant to the conversation than pointing out that one slice of that conversation feels perfectly comfortable attempting to utterly destroy their opponents, and everyone else is too scared to condemn them for it?

If you’re unaware, Shor was canceled for accurately summarizing the contents of an academic paper. Shor made a point that he felt was important for the messaging of the Democrats. At the time the country was exploding in riots aligned with BlackLivesMatter and driven by anger over the deaths of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor. Shor linked to a paper that argued that riots have bad political consequences for Democrats. This would not seem to be particularly inflammatory; people indiscriminately burning and smashing shit has little obvious utility for the marginalized or anyone else. But Shor lost his job for tweeting that paper and agreeing with its thesis. Similarly, the Intercept’s Lee Fang was absolutely mobbed for the crime of recording an interview with a young Black man who was critical of the riots and the protest movement from which they sprang. He almost lost his job, as well.

(Here’s a fun tip for you all: if you have the power to get someone fired or otherwise ruin their life you are not a powerless, marginalized Other.)

Not that they had rebutted a particularly coherent pro-riot argument. There was little in the way of defense of riots in 2020 at all, really. Many attempted to invoke Martin Luther King in that regard, which is hilarious and bizarre concerning a man who among many other critiques of riots said that they “are not revolutionary but reactionary because they invite defeat; they offer an emotional catharsis, but they must be followed by a sense of futility,” and that close to the end of his life. (In their defense, almost no one who invokes MLK has actually read him.) But what Shor and Fang were guilty of was not of breaking with some intellectual mandate within liberalism but with speaking out of turn, with criticizing the wrong people. The difference between Shor and Fang’s criticism of the pro-riot side and the behavior of those who rose against them is that Shor and Fang never tried to destroy anyone, didn’t tweet at anyone’s boss in an attempt to get them fired, didn’t have the inclination or the power to punish those who dared to disagree with them. But those who targeted them were operating in a bizarre liberal discursive culture where, if you dress up what you’re doing in vague language about oppression, you can operate however you’d like without rebuke and attempt to ruin the life of whoever you please.

And so I return to Klein’s consideration of who will determine Democratic messaging moving forward, and I ask: how can you have a discussion about discourse and messaging, Ezra, while studiously ignoring the powerful fear of imminent social and professional destruction that you and most others in your profession live under?

The left-of-center is in a profoundly strange and deeply unhealthy place. In the span of a decade or less a bizarre form of linguistically-radical but substantively-conservative identity neoliberalism descended from decaying humanities departments in elite universities and infected social media like Tumblr and Twitter, through which it conquered the media and entertainment industries, the nonprofit industrial complex, and government entities as wide-ranging as the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the brass of the Pentagon. That movement now effectively controls the idea-and-story generating power of our society, outside of explicitly conservative media which exists in a large silo but a silo all the same. On any given day the most powerful institutions in the world go to great lengths to mollify the social justice movement, to demonstrate fealty, to avoid its wrath. It’s common now for liberals to deny the influence and power of social justice politics, for inscrutable reasons, but if the current level of control over how people talk publicly is insufficient, I can’t imagine what would placate them. Are most of these institutions false friends? Of course. But that, too, is not much of a defense.

This tendency to be promiscuous in enthralling elites and powerful institutions should be a clue to the fact that, despite its radical self-branding, the contemporary social justice movement fundamentally serves to empower the status quo. Effective left politics are about convincing various people who are unalike that they have a shared self-interest, that society can do best for them when we do best for others, too. That’s how you build a mass movement, by appealing to people’s sense of self-interest and showing them how they can help their neighbors while they help themselves. But because the social justice movement’s first dictate is to establish a hierarchy of suffering, and to tell those that are purported to suffer less that their problems aren’t problems, no such mass movement is coming. The social justice movement is not just incidentally antagonistic to organizing everyone and recognizing all kinds of people as worthy of our compassion and support. That antagonism is existential. When you ask many people within the movement, “what could we do to convert the white working class to our values?,” they will simply tell you that they don’t want to convert them, that they are not worthy of being a part of their movement. They would rather have targets than converts, to lose as an exclusive moral caste than win as a grubby populist coalition.

Core to understanding this moment is to realize that the vast majority of people who enforce these politics don’t actually believe in them. They don’t, that is, think that social justice politics as currently composed are healthy or just or likely to result in tangible positive change. There’s a core of true-believers who do, and there’s a group of those who profit directly from the hegemony of social justice politics in elite spaces. (The former two groups have some overlap, but it’s not a perfect circle.) There’s conservative critics, who are both the most natural targets of social justice ire and yet those the social justice movement seem least interested in targeting. There’s an island of misfit toys of left and leftish critics of social justice politics like me. And then there’s the great big mass of people who are just scared. I think Klein didn’t really connect the dots between Shor’s cancelation and the debate about how the Democrats should strategize and message because he’s afraid of facing the same tactics Shor faced. Why wade in those waters when the potential consequences are so severe, and when the upside is so limited? I’m not accusing Klein of lacking courage or integrity. I just think he’s operating within a professional culture that has established dozens of new unwritten rules in the past couple years, along with severe consequences for breaking them.

But the popularism debate is a perfect example of how progressives simply can’t have the debates they need to have when the boundaries of the debate are hemmed in by the fear of vindictive reprisals. Should the party moderate? Should the party push left? How should it accomplish either? These issues involve everyone in the Democratic coalition. The rules of the game, though, tell us that some people have to mind their Ps and Qs while others get to engage angrily, vengefully, jokingly, and immaturely, as for some bizarre reason we have carved out a total exemption to basic rules of conduct in argument within left-of-center spaces for those who claim to speak from the standpoint of “the marginalized.” Unfortunately, their grasp on who actually holds that status is a little… motivated.

They say, for example, that people who come from less privileged backgrounds - there isn’t any such ordinal scale, of course, but hang on - should have special status to dictate the future of the party. And you might imagine that this would privilege conservative and moderate Democrats, of which there are far more than you could ever imagine from Twitter. The young activist core of the progressive Democrat agenda is dominantly white; it must be, as most Americans are white and an even higher percentage of college graduates are white and the percentage of those who went to the tiny handful of elite schools that graduate the vast majority of our politically influential class is even more white. Those activists are thus overwhelmingly young and majority white and almost universally college educated and, while in some cases making bad money now, upwardly mobile and uniquely equipped to navigate the knowledge economy when they move on to getting paid, as they all inevitably will. This would seem to be a privileged class in the most obvious sense, and against them stands a lot of regular Democrat voters. Say, people with some college but no degree, Black, middle aged, middle class, and far more conservative than the average Twitter liberal, favoring “commonsense” abortion restrictions, opposed to major policing reductions, vaguely worried about deficits and taxes, and deeply skeptical about mass immigration.

So the dictate to favor the more marginalized members of the coalition leads to pursuing an agenda consonant with the values of those moderates, right? Good lord, of course not. Instead the activist class just insists that they are the marginalized voice, and if you disagree, they try to ruin your life. Black Democrats have been perhaps the most conservative element of the party since the formation of the modern Democratic coalition, but this fact is inconvenient for those who both claim to speak ex cathedra when discussing racial justice and who hold policy positions far to the left of most Black Democrats. So they just ignore the reality of who favors further-left positions among Democrats, and if you try to bring the reality to their attention, you get white men calling you a white man at best and a digital mob trying to declare you a permanent untouchable at worst. So how can we have the immensely important debates we need to have, under those conditions? In so many domains, the left-of-center is hamstrung by a punishingly narrow range of acceptable positions, a mass assumption of bad faith, and a refusal to insist that everyone play by the same rules.

These conditions leave us unable to have frank and uncomfortable conversations when we need to have them. I’ve said before that the Rolling Stone-University of Virginia rape hoax disaster could have been avoided, or so least mitigated, as many people - progressive people, feminist people, progressive feminist women - said from the jump “this isn’t right, something’s not adding up, this isn’t how it works.” The whole story was so unconvincingly operatic; a gang rape, with dozens of witnesses, as fraternity initiation ritual? That’s not remotely typical of campus sexual assault and so cinematic it seems obviously made up. A lot of people knew something didn’t add up, right from the start.

But because they were operating in an environment of omnipresent, existential personal threat, because they knew people might attempt to destroy them if they said the wrong thing, they said this privately. Publicly, they dutifully golf clapped and retweeted the story on Twitter and were good soldiers. And then of course it turned out to be a fraud, its narrative so strange and unrepresentative because it had been entirely invented by a young woman who appeared to have been suffering serious instability. Which meant that it all blew up spectacularly, handing the anti-feminist brigades a talking point they still won’t shut up about. Perhaps if the people at Rolling Stone hadn’t lived under the shadow of professional destruction for violating progressive mores, some of them would have spoken up. Perhaps if prominent online feminists had taken immediate questions about the story’s veracity seriously, they could have engaged in damage control. But no. I remember when that story came out; the sense of danger was palpable. Those are the wages of living under the constant fear of people who want to divest you of your job, your friends, your reputation, and your future: no one feels empowered to speak truth to bullshit.

Or simply return to the riot issue that Shor and Fang paid a price for. How many of the progressive people living through that period actually thought what was happening was cool, productive, justifiable, really? All of those journalists living busy little upper-middle class lives, they were actually rooting for more burning Pizza Huts? The tweedy academics? The thinktank crew, the nonprofiteers? Please. They weren’t nodding along to the videos of fires and riot police saying “yeah this is good, this is how we get justice.” They were watching people reacting to it all and saying “there is no fucking way I’m sticking my neck out on this.” They were in the rear with the gear, which is true of most people who carry water for the social justice movement - they enforce the social consensus due to fear, not zeal. And we have no idea how many conversations in progressive spaces are getting corrupted in this way, how many issues are distorted by so many participants self-censoring defensively.

Most who read this won’t believe me, but in many ways my sympathies are more with the activist progressive Democrats than with the popularists. I have been asking the Democrats to move to the left for my entire political life. The problem is not that the party has moved too far to the left, which is an abstraction that doesn’t mean much, but rather that its messaging and culture are all based on belittling the struggles of anyone who doesn’t fall into a protected identity class. I think there are issues of profound potential where smart policy and good politics could unite the interests of the moderate Democratic rank and file and the activist class. That will take political imagination that’s broader than simply reading the country’s mood and going with what’s safe. And in the simplest sense on some specific points I would rather the activists get their way than David Shor.

But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the activist class, the Twitter-obsessed class, the collegiate class, the vengeful “progressive” NPCs that have poisoned the well by normalizing attempts to destroy people they disagree with. No one is saying you shouldn’t advocate for your values. You absolutely should be vocal and passionate, and you are free to invoke moral language, and you certainly don’t have to personally like the people you disagree with. But you don’t get to threaten people’s lives, which is very common in some social media spaces, and you don’t get to silence anyone, and you don’t get to dox anyone, and it’s profoundly fucked up to try and separate someone from their job in a world where you have to work to eat. That can never be an authentically progressive or left-wing action, I don’t care how righteous you think your movement is. There’s no excuse for that behavior, especially given that the people who are guilty of this are almost all perfectly empowered and socioeconomically secure. You can’t run a political party under these conditions, or a social movement, and we shouldn’t have to. Advocate for your values, do the work, build the coalition through persuasion, accept that people will always disagree with you and that this is a healthy condition, and stop pretending that you are the subaltern when you’re really a whole industry of A students who went to elite colleges and have never known what it’s like to not be listened to and taken seriously.

To put it simply, grow up. And stop trying to destroy people. Like you yourselves keep saying, canceling doesn’t reliably work, so why bother? Judging by the utter lack of meaningful change since last summer, neither have the protests or riots. That’s not a nice thing to say, but it’s reality, and if you are sincere about helping those you claim to speak for, your first duty is to efficacy. So maybe time to try something else.