The Race to the Bottom
For the past few years, the left has been struggling with an internal conflict over whether the far-left culture war orthodoxy known as “wokeness” is hurting them with normal people—driving off potential allies and sapping political support for more important causes.
It undoubtedly is, and the existence of Symposium and similar publications that reach out to a disaffected liberal center-left is evidence of that fact. It should all be coming into clearer focus with the news that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is planning to overturn Roe v. Wade, giving new credence to the complaint that the woke left has been so busy trying to erase the existence of women in favor of “birthing persons” that they were unable to protect what they used to regard as a core issue of women’s rights. More to the point, the expected Supreme Court ruling would not be possible without the six-justice conservative majority made possible by Donald Trump’s narrow victory in the 2016 presidential election, which he won in part by loudly advertising himself as the candidate who rejected “Political Correctness.”
For a section of the left, though, wokeness is not a distraction from its core agenda; it is the core agenda. Others on the left have a strong incentive to want to avoid making the choice, to pretend that they can appease the woke fringe—which is very loud and very angry and disproportionately represented in elite academic, media, and professional circles—without sacrificing the support of Joe Sixpack. So there has been a wave of recent attempts to argue for such a policy and even to pretend that woke ideas are a source of popularity for the left.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent flirts with this idea, urging the center-left to “rethink” critiques of wokeness in light of a viral speech by Michigan state Senator Mallory McMorrow taking a Republican politicians to task for throwing around the “grooming” smear.
Those demanding that Democrats achieve vast separation from wokeness should say where McMorrow’s handling of this fits into their schema. She didn’t distance herself from race or gender identity or avoid raising their salience.
This is a somewhat superficial view of “wokeness,” which is not synonymous with any discussion of “race or gender identity” or any call for tolerance. It refers to a very specific worldview with very specific tenets—as those who have been found to transgress these rigid dogmas have discovered.
But like I said, there is a big incentive to attempt to explain away the woke dogmas that repel ordinary people. Here is how David Roberts attempts to do it.
What is the equivalent, on the left, of widespread belief on the right that Dems are a global pedophile ring that stole the election? If polarization is symmetric, or if the left has gone further, there must be something equally extreme, yes? I'm all ears.
Well, where shall we start? There were riots two years ago based on the idea that police departments are fundamentally racist, the modern descendants of slave patrols, and have to be defunded or even abolished. The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to a repeatedly debunked collection of articles claiming that America was founded on white supremacy—which was then sent it out into the schools to become part of the curriculum. We were repeatedly assured by prominent media figures that Antifa rioters are heroes just like the boys who stormed the beaches on D-Day. We were told that arson and looting was no big deal and actually totally justifiable because when the mob burns down your restaurant, it’s “just property.”
Now, you could say that not all Democratic politicians are as radical as the woke left—and you could also say the same thing, I suppose, for many Republicans. But you will excuse people who watched footage of cities burning in 2020, or who find the 1619 Project coming home in their kids’ homework, for thinking that these things represent the views of the left. In fact, the culture war skirmishes often loom larger in the minds of people who do not follow politics obsessively. In the public consciousness, the arbitrary authoritarianism of wokeness is perhaps best represented by the way Harry Potter books went from an annoyingly over-used source of political metaphors, to J.K. Rowling to being denounced as a bigotand treated as Undesirable No. 1.
A lot of this discussion was set off by Elon Musk, the presumed new owner of Twitter, who re-posted on that platform a cartoon created last year by Colin Wright. You know, this one:
This conveys what Wright puckishly describes—borrowing a phrase associated with the woke outlook—as the “lived experience” of many people over the past ten to fifteen years.
As Wright notes, “the most common criticism” of this meme “is that it portrays the right as remaining stationary since 2008.” But he avers that it is still true with regard to “the important cultural values I have in mind—free speech, individual rights, and women’s rights.”
I am not so complacent, because I started out to the right of that “center” line, and I’ve spent the last six years watching the conservatives bolt away from me toward an ideology that is increasingly hostile to free speech and individual rights.
The most recent example is Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law and the resulting holy war against Disney for daring to disagree with the governor on a piece of legislation. I have already written about how this has unleashed the old “groomer” smear that treats all homosexuals as suspected pedophiles.
Now we’re about to see what this new law will look like in practice. Here is a preview: a case from Texas in early 2020 that seems like a harbinger of the future.
A Texas art teacher who was placed on administrative leave after talking about “her future wife” in class hopes her settlement with a school district will change the lives of other LGBTQ people….
The two-time teacher of the year was giving a welcome back to school presentation in August 2017 to her class when she showed a photo of her and her then-fiancée dressed as characters from the movie “Finding Nemo,” according to court documents obtained by CNN.
A parent complained to the school, saying that Bailey was “promoting the homosexual agenda,” according to court documents….
Bailey argued she was discriminated against and her constitutional rights were violated. The school district said the teacher refused to follow administration directions “regarding age-appropriate conversations with students” about sexual orientation.
Bailey won her lawsuit, but the “Don’t Say Gay” law recently passed in Florida is designed to create a lot more cases exactly like this one—and to put state law on the side of the complaining parent. The political right is in a full-blown gay panic, and rather than turning to school choice, their solution to our school wars is to unleash an Assault of the Church Ladies who will spend all of their time filing complaints and lawsuits against the bogeyman of “the homosexual agenda.”
This is on top of the fact that Republicans have spent the past year and half spreading conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, excusing an attempt to overturn the results of that election, and plotting to create the mechanisms to overturn it successfully in 2024. I hope these are issues we “fellow liberals” would care about as much as “free speech, individual rights, and women’s rights”—and in fact, that we would regard them as all part of the same issue.
So let me respectfully offer an updated and more accurate version of Colin Wright’s cartoon.
This certainly reflects a lot of my “lived experience” from the past ten years.
My only reservation is that this still portrays the movement of the partisans as a race to the sides, to the left or to the right. But as I’ve been arguing, those aren’t the real alternatives. The real alternatives are up to liberalism and down to illiberalism—so the current political trend captured here is actually a race to the bottom.