The Politics of Pure Affiliation Has Driven Everyone Absolutely Insane
It’s hard to write about this without sound pious, but probably the most elementary political ideal I have is that principle has to come before affiliation. Politics is about taking moral intuitions and reasoning and using them to craft an ideology from which you derive specific policy positions and arguments. In order to put those into practice you will have to form coalitions, so affiliation is important. But it’s very easy for your group identity to obliterate your principles, as the desire to belong overwhelms your organic beliefs. And I think we’re at a space, in 2022, where the default political identity is almost purely affiliatory. I understand that claiming we’re in a tribal period is not novel, but almost every day I’m reminded of how bad things have gotten.
Aside from the casual desire to mow people down - I’m someone with positive feelings towards Greenwald, but I really must stress that even if you hate Glenn Greenwald, this tweet is absolutely crazy and makes no sense. What unites Putin, Bannon, and Greenwald? For the sake of argument let’s set aside whether they’re all Bad as Wilson suggests. On what earthly basis do they represent any kind of coherent opposition to Emmanuel Macron, President of France? Why is a Republican opportunist advising the political leader of a country he doesn’t live in or understand? What the hell is going on?
We have to start with the fact that this is sentient chickpea Rick Wilson of the Lincoln Project. Wilson is a fraud of the highest order and the Lincoln Project a con job that works ceaselessly to deprive the dumbest fucking Resistance liberals on the planet of their money. In a vast ocean of groups attempting to ring every last dime out of Donald Trump’s presidency they stand out as uniquely shameless. They stand for abstract concepts like honor and decency, when they’re not harboring accused sexual predators. Given their list of abject failures you would probably be better served burning your money in the backyard than sending it to them; you could hardly do worse! They claim to work in the legacy of Ronald Reagan, which is true in the sense that severe cognitive decline is the only thing that can explain their behavior. They’re the slick political operatives responsible for this:
But what Wilson knows is that there’s a certain species of center-left Democrat that hates the three people he listed enough to never notice that they share nothing else in common. That Vladimir Putin has ascended so high in the Dem Big Bad list is a product of current events and the need to believe. Bannon is a representative of Trumpism, a figure that they can organize against as a string-pulling mastermind, which is kind of funny because he’s Steve Bannon. And Greenwald is a dissident journalist who’s motivated primarily against the national security and domestic surveillance establishments, elite institutions, and the leadership of the Democratic party. Again, even if we agreed that all of these are baddies: what are we doing here? Could you really put any of the three of them ahead of Marine le Pen or any number of French far-right politicians that neither I nor Wilson knows anything about? But Wilson knows that “current event + Bad people = $$$$$.” He has no need to express a coherent principle that underlies his comparison. He knows that in 2022, affiliation rules. Politics as the exchange of values-laden ideas is no match for the sense that someone is an asshole, that they're outside of your social culture and thus have no right to coherent or accurate criticism.
Wilson is a Republican. He has worked tirelessly in his life to implement a conservative vision that causes human suffering. That vision is the product of ideas about society and government, of principles. If Democratic politics mean anything, those principles should disqualify Wilson from receiving the praise of Democrats, to say nothing of their money. But like Jonah Goldberg and Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol and countless others, Wilson has taken advantage of the total vacuum of principle in the Trump era to rebrand himself in a way designed to flatter the interests of the people who dole out respectability and elite status in 2022. (They got money, too.) The real irony is that their adopting politics bereft of principle but big on tribes is that they’re following in the footsteps of the politician who pulled it off better than any other, Trump himself.
I almost wish I didn’t value Greenwald’s work so that I could present this purely from a position of sense and priorities: the fixation on Greenwald by many on the left exceeds the rational. He’s been an important voice, sure, but he’s an independent journalist with a newsletter you have to seek out to read and a Twitter feed you can mute or block. You are free to argue that Greenwald has bad priorities or obsesses himself, fine. But there comes a time when the sheer collective effort involved in hating Greenwald can only come at the detriment of other projects. Even if you think he’s the world’s biggest asshole, the immense roster of people on Twitter and in the media who spend their time on the anti-Greenwald beat is very strange. But this points to an element of the politics of affiliation that’s even more toxic. Because so many lefties spend their time antagonizing Greenwald (and assorted other of the disfavored), that becomes a marker of belonging itself, perhaps the key marker. It’s a way to be a lefty. Affiliatory politics are always self-reinforcing, as the more that people fixate on them the steeper the punishment becomes for those who step outside of the boundaries.
You can find similar dynamics all over, albeit to a lesser extent. Matt Yglesias and Nate Silver come to mind. I bow to no one in my history of antagonizing prominent liberal technocrats. (Ezra Klein you offend; Yglesias you annoy.) But surely Yglesias shares far more politically with his many leftist detractors than with, say, the Breitbart crowd. I can understand thinking that time is better spent critiquing those who are more subject to the influence of your side, and ibviously, it would be profoundly hypocritical for me to act as though it’s not legitimate to criticize “your side.” My point is that, one, the level of personal antipathy towards dissidents now is far greater than towards those all the way in the other camp, and two, that these days diversity of opinion doesn’t prompt people to broaden their understanding of who the coalition can include. Just the opposite: perspectives that don’t fit easily into the established groups just result in further fracturing, of more outgroups. And so Nate Silver and Matt Yglesias are now representative of a new Kind of Guy. You might look at them and say, well, I think they’re dead wrong about A B and C, but we need a big tent. Or you can say “here is another way to be a loser that we all dunk on incessantly.” Which is politics?
As Scott Alexander once ably explained, the closer another tribe is to yours, the more you hate them. You may insert your favorite aphorism about how we only hate those who remind us of ourselves.
How did we get here?
The internet happened. It closed social distances. Twitter destroyed the distinction between someone you knew professionally and someone you knew personally, and all political interactions became personal interactions. There was no longer a difference between that asshole who’s pro-life/choice and that asshole whose jokes you don’t like. And constant connectivity between every political obsessive in the country allowed people to notice that those they agreed with politically were also likely to enjoy the same shows and movies and music. Conversely, seeing every random thought that pops into the heads of people you once might have never interacted with provides the opportunity to hate them; familiarity breeds contempt. Social media is exquisitely well-tuned for turning mild disagreement into existential disdain.
The internet also helped raise the overall level of political knowledge in the country, especially among formally-uninformed normies, to unfortunate effect. It turns out that more informed voters sort themselves more consistently into parties, resulting in less ticket-splitting and the demise of conservative Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans. (Joe Manchin and Susan Collins notwithstanding.) I don’t fetishize in-party ideological diversity for its own sake. But when there are no figures in the opposite party that you respect, let alone would vote for, there’s no reason not to hate everyone on the other side and in doing so define politics more and more tribally.
Memes conquered culture. Memetic communication by necessity decomposes ideas down to their simples representative elements; you don’t have to dig a meme’s idea out through consideration or else it’s a bad meme. You recognize the formulaic elements and immediately produce the right response. Text messages and tweets similarly prompt pattern recognition, not deep reading. I think in these cognitive conditions it becomes easier and easier to view every individual through the most reductive criteria. If they complain about teens on TikTok, they’re Trumpists, if they wear a mask to the grocery store, they’re soy liberals.
I actually think that the sheer number of people we’re exposed to in an online world also compels politics by shorthand - our networks are so big that we feel forced to use broad signifiers to define political allegiances. The alternative seems too exhausting.
The left went really hard on the “politics as a cool social club where the in-crowd hangs out” vision. Policy and shared values became irrelevant compared to broad cultural cues like shared slang. (Y’all! I’m saying y’all! I BELONG!) The pure recruiting power of this approach shouldn’t be discounted; a large number of people who became self-identified socialists in the past decade did so because they thought it looked cool to dunk on libs online. The downside is an army of guys like Vaush who throw the word “dialectics” around but who have read nothing and know nothing about elementary elements of left history and theory. Because the currency of these online left spaces is doing irony and telling jokes, not knowing things, these guys pay no social price, and the connection between politics and substance is further degraded.
American conservatism went even more insane. I will never in my life talk about a “once-proud” party or any such nonsense, and I will continue to insist that the George W. Bush presidency was much more destructive than the Trump years. But the American right has abandoned even the pretense of residing on Planet Earth in the past decade, spinning out into deranged conspiracies and pure reaction to the point that they will refuse to take life-saving medicine in a global pandemic just to defy the pointy headed elites. When one of the two major ideological wings of a country in a two-party system becomes unmoored from even minimal sanity, the competitive pressure on the other side is nil. Democrats have no need to iterate and improve in messaging or policy because liberals will never vote for the Republicans, no matter how bad things get. That means that our elections are determined by the thin slice of the electorate that changes votes from election to election, which happens to be the most incomprehensible sector to me. It also means that there’s no reason to debate principle. Republicans don’t give a shit about policy! So why not treat politics like lunch at middle school?
Everybody gave up. Faith in the ability of the system to produce positive change is incredibly low, and not for no reason. Principle feels pointless if you don't believe it can ever find material expression through power. So why not just abandon the concept of someone you don't like but will bloc with? Why not just have friends instead of a coalition?
To be clear, I have absolutely no attachment to civility or even-handedness or respectful exchange for their own sake. My problem is that politics without principle is nothing, literally Yooks and Zooks. You might as well be arguing Yankees and Red Sox. The whole enterprise collapses into meaninglessness.
I’ve said this before, but when I have antagonistic interactions with leftists in real life I always challenge them to name actual issues on which we disagree. They rarely can; we usually agree on most everything of substance. Their antipathy towards me is fundamentally social in nature, not political. But they don’t understand that distinction, as the line between the social and the political has been completely obliterated. And when I do try to advance a particular perspective on issues of substance that have become controversial, like continuing to point out that civil liberties have been a core element of radical left politics for generations, they don’t bother to listen to my arguments because I have been preemptively sorted into the bad column by those who say I should not be invited to the party. Affiliation doesn't just replace principle, it preempts the possibility of principle.
And everybody feels the squeeze. I'll take a minor example, only because it's a good microcosm of how this all works. On the dissident right, the online journal Quilette has recently found itself attracting heated criticism from former supporters due to their embrace of Covid-19 vaccines. Objectively, a small niche web-only magazine like that plays no role in the development of national Covid protocols like masking or lockdowns. But by standing against their closest analogs on an issue of immense emotional valence, they have become traitors, and a traitor is worse than the other side. Plus, the enemy of my enemy is rarely my friend in these scenarios; liberals who act as the natural antagonists to the anti-Covid restriction right are not about to race to Quilette’s defense. So they find themselves with few friends. And this is the trouble with opposing the politics of affiliation: doing so makes you a betrayer to whatever group you might most naturally belong to without attracting any new supporters. You quickly end up, well, like me, a political orphan. I’m a decently well-read and well-informed socialist and I’ve been organizing in some capacity or another for over 20 years, and perhaps you might think that would rule in terms of who sees me as a fellow traveler. But in the day-to-day prosecution of politics, who you’re personally cool with feels more visceral and more reliable than actual beliefs. Which is how you get so many people who contribute nothing to socialism but shitty jokes clogging the space, and how you have an attendant lack of direction for the socialist tendency.
The maniacal fixation on Greenwald, on Michael Tracey, on the Red Scare girls, on Silver and Yglesias, and for the right on Quilette or David French…. Enemies who sit comfortably in the other camp aren’t actually hated, as in doing so they bring order and balance to the world. Those who must be destroyed are those who trod the lines, who trouble the distinction between in and out. And so the politics of affiliation will rule, until one side loses hard and often enough to compete for the other voters again, or until the unexpected happens and chaos reigns, and we can perhaps again experience a political space of possibility. For a little while.