|A scene from Jan. 6.|
Over the past quarter century, the world has seen a disturbing revival of authoritarianism. According to the cover of the December Atlantic, in the struggle between despotism and democracy, "the bad guys are winning." A Times pundit asks whether 2024 will be the year democracy dies in the US. Freedom House, in a colossal understatement, says we are in the “longest democratic slump of its kind” in the 40 years they’ve been monitoring democracy.
The greatest threat comes from right-wing populists, like the mob that stormed the capital, or the dictators who hold actual power in Europe. Yet illiberal behavior is also showing up in liberal institutions controlled by the left. While that behavior doesn’t pose as direct a threat to the survival of democracy, it threatens to seriously hamper the fight against authoritarianism.
The case of Democratic data analyst David Shor is instructive. In a tweet, Shor suggested that outbreaks of arson, looting and violence during the George Floyd protests could hurt the party’s chances of winning in November. He included a link to a scholarly article by a Black Princeton professor to support the claim. After a left-wing Twitter mob and some co-workers attacked Shor for “minimizing Black grief and rage” (among other things) and flooded his employer, Civis Analytics, with demands he be fired, Shor apologized but was fired anyway.
What’s particularly troubling about this case from an anti-authoritarian point of view is that Shor, a self-proclaimed socialist, is one of the most insightful Democratic strategists working for the party. A “data guru,” who pioneered new data analysis methods that proved “spookily accurate” in the 2012 election, according to liberal pundits Erik Levitz and Ezra Klein, his firing is a painful example of how purging dissenters hampers the good guys in their effort to wrest power from authoritarians.
Shor is just one incident, but such examples abound on the left—firings or forced resignations, investigations, demotions, suspensions, de-platforming, book bans, black-listing.
(Of course, cancellation is also common on the authoritarian right in even more consequential ways. Republicans who defy Trump are driven out of Congress; death threats are lodged against Democratic and Republican public officials for doing their jobs.)
Matt Yglesias summed up the principle behind Shor’s firing. According to the logic of anti-racism as it’s now practiced, he said, “it’s categorically wrong for a person—or at least a white person—to criticize on tactical or other grounds anything being done in the name of racial justice.”
That, he continues, is “going to be a big problem for progressive politics if it becomes impossible to have frank conversations around the tactics and substance of race-related issues.”
Yglesias wrote about Shor’s firing in the aftermath of another controversy, over an open letter in Harper’s Magazine, signed by 153 prominent intellectuals defending free speech against the constriction of debate, leftist censoriousness, “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Emily VanDerWerff, a trans-gender co-worker, tweeted that Yglesias, by signing the letter, made her “feel less safe at Vox,” where they both worked. Although the signers included left-wing stalwarts like Noam Chomsky, African Americans like the historian Nell Irving Painter, and at least one trans woman, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, VanDerWerff objected to Yglesias signing the letter because, she claimed, it had also been signed by “several prominent anti-trans voices” (presumably including J.K. Rowling). She also claimed that it included anti-trans “dog whistles,” though she never identified them. VanDerWerff tweeted her critique and then became the object herself of a hostile Twitter mob, illustrating that cancellation comes from every direction.
Yglesias left Vox a few months later and established a new blog at Substack, citing a desire to “be a fiercely independent and at times contentious voice.” In doing so, he joined a group of prominent journalists fleeing established liberal or centrist publications, where they felt their perspectives were no longer welcome, for their own blogging or podcasting platforms: Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani left The Intercept, Bari Weiss and Nellie Bowles The Times, Tara Henley, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Katie Herzog The Stranger, and Andrew Sullivan New York Magazine.
Asked if the conflict over the Harper’s letter had anything to do with his departure from Vox, Yglesias said: “Something we’ve seen in a lot of organizations is increasing sensitivity about language and what people say… It’s a damaging trend in the media in particular because it is an industry that’s about ideas, and if you treat disagreement as a source of harm or personal safety, then it’s very challenging to do good work.”
Yglesias and Shor landed on their feet. When high-profile or wealthy individuals are canceled, it can bolster their careers. But dissenters who lack a big following are not likely to fare so well. And even more damaging to institutions like Vox and Civis Analytics than losing prominent individuals like Shor and Yglesias is the chilling of dissent among the rank and file who remain, and who can’t afford to lose their jobs.
The New York Times, which has itself been at the center of a number of such controversies, has even assigned a reporter to cover the cancellation beat. Michael Powell has written about the illiberal behavior of liberal institutions and individuals at MIT, Smith College, the ACLU, the Democratic Socialists of America, the University of North Texas, epidemiologists, and elite private schools.
Asked in an interview whether such incidents added up to a significant trend that we should be worried about, Powell said they “almost certainly” did. He said that of the 15 tenured professors he spoke with at Smith College, none of them, with “perhaps one exception,” “disputed that there was an illiberal stream running through liberal higher education.” None were willing to go on the record, and some of them even denounced the sentiments they had expressed to Powell during a subsequent faculty meeting, apparently in a craven effort to cover their tracks.
In their “Scholars Under Fire” database of actions against university professors “for engaging in constitutionally protected forms of speech,” FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) lists 237 such incidents coming “from the right” and 321 “from the left” since 2015.
Anne Applebaum spoke with some of the academics who have been targeted for violating new “social codes” for an article in the Atlantic. Even worse than any formal punishments, it seems, is the social ostracism that follows such charges. Once an accusation has been lodged, she writes:
The phone stops ringing. People stop talking to you. You become toxic. "I have in my department dozens of colleagues—I think I have spoken to zero of them in the past year," one academic told me. … "I wake up every morning afraid to teach," [another said]… The university campus that he once loved has become a hazardous jungle, full of traps.Illiberalism on the left is supported by theories that dismiss as based in patriarchy and white supremacy things like open debate, reason, objectivity, and democratic process—essentially the bedrock principles of liberal democracy. In an earlier post, I mentioned Ibram X. Kendi’s call to give an unelected committee made up of “experts on race” the power to invalidate any law enacted by any democratically elected governmental body if it is judged to increase racial disparities.
I also wrote about a popular diversity training method that identifies European Enlightenment culture as white and inherently racist.
I hesitate to wade into the contentious debate over critical race theory here—or to seem to side with conservatives who have used it to discredit all anti-racist efforts, but there is no denying that CRT sees rationalism and free speech as tools of oppression rather than liberation. In their brief, sympathetic introduction to the theory, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic say that “Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law” (Delgado and Stefancic, 3).
The theory itself is not actually taught in K-12 schools, but it’s dishonest to suggest that CRT and other post-modern theories have no presence in America’s grade schools when they are used extensively in education programs that train teachers and administrators. Delgado and Stefancic celebrate this fact, noting that “many scholars in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists” (7).
Opinion polls have also shown that the rise of illiberal sentiment is not confined to right-leaning voters. In 2014, when President Obama’s legislative agenda was being stymied by a Republican Congress, 30 percent of Democrats said they were in favor of a president closing Congress and governing without it “when the country is facing very difficult times”—something even Lincoln didn’t do during the Civil War. “A 2019 survey by political scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of Maryland found that around 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans thought violence would be justified if the opposing party won the 2020 election.”
A Cato Institute survey found that while 36 percent of “strong conservatives” say they would support the firing of employees because they donated to Joe Biden’s campaign in 2020, 50 percent of strong liberals said the same about employees who contributed to Trump’s campaign. The survey also found that the percentage of Americans who say they self-censor to avoid offense has risen from 58 percent in 2017 to 62 percent in 2020. Those 2020 numbers were higher for conservatives at 77 percent than for liberals, at 52 percent.
I don’t think you can save liberal democracy by embracing a less bad version of authoritarianism. Winning strategies to save democracy and defeat racism are less likely to emerge from dogmatic acceptance of untested theories or the silencing of dissenters among the "good guys" than from a reasoned discussion of competing ideas and consideration of the best available data—the very methods of the enlightened liberalism we are trying to save.
Institutions of higher education play an important role in such efforts because that is where citizens learn those methods and get practice using them.
And I can think of no school better suited to that role than one that has placed a seminar table in every classroom.
On the decline of liberal values.
Karen Stenner and Jessica Stern, “How to Live With Authoritarians,” Foreign Policy, February 11, 2021.
German Feierherd, Noam Lupu, and Susan Stokes, “A significant minority of Americans say they could support a military takeover of the U.S. government,” Washington Post, February 16, 2018.
Emily Ekins “Poll: 62% of Americans Say They Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share,” Cato Institute, July 22, 2020.
Sally Satel, “The Experts Somehow Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left,” The Atlantic, Sept. 25, 2021.
Thomas Edsall, "'The Whole of Liberal Democracy Is in Grave Danger at This Moment,’" New York Times, July 22, 2020. Edsall reviews theories about the relative strength of authoritarianism on the right and left. "Disputes over differences in judgment, character and moral values between liberals and conservatives are among the most fraught topics in political psychology," he writes. Edsall seems to come down on the side of Karen Stenner, who is quoted in the title of the piece. She added: "But the fault lies with authoritarians on both the right and the left, and the solution is in the hands of non-authoritarians on both sides."
On the threat from the right.
Why put so much effort into criticizing illiberalism on the left, when what’s happening on the right is so much worse? My answer to this question is simple. Democrats can’t win elections without attracting a certain number of working class white voters and left-wing illiberalism seems to be driving voters away from the Democratic Party.
Right-wing authoritarianism poses the greater threat to democracy. The January Atlantic Magazine catalogues efforts by Trump supporters to gain control over electoral processes in the states so they can assure Trump is restored to the presidency in 2025 regardless of the vote totals in November 2024. The Atlantic puts it this way: “January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election.”
But for all of that, it’s important to remember that even without stealing elections, Republicans are fairly successful at getting Americans to vote for them. Trump got 74 million votes in 2020—including more ethnic minority votes than he got in 2016. Republicans control of 60 percent of state legislative chambers, 67 percent of the Supreme Court, which was the final arbiter in the 2000 presidential election, and the odds are good that thanks to their success in gerrymandering and voter suppression, they will take over Congress in the 2022 midterm election. Democrats will have to win the popular vote by about 3 percent to carry the electoral college and keep the presidency in 2024. Biden’s low approval record suggests this will be an uphill battle.
In their 2012 book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein used the term “asymmetric polarization,” to illustrate how the right was more responsible for the decline of America’s civic culture.
Michael Powell’s most recent piece focused on the impact on Texas public schools of a conservative anti-CRT law, which prohibits teachers from eliciting feelings of “discomfort, guilt, or anguish” or using the Times’ 1619 Project in their classes. In his interview with Yasha Mounk, Powell characterized what he saw in Texas as “a funhouse mirror of what you see on the left” and concluded that “it’s a bad place for freedom of inquiry right now.”
Spencer Bokat-Lindell, “Will 2024 Be the Year American Democracy Dies?” New York Times, Sept. 30, 2021
Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020). On the last pages of the book, Applebaum, an anti-Trump conservative, calls for "new coalitions," presumably among anti-authoritarians of the right and left. In the Twilight and her December cover story in the Atlantic, Applebaum focuses mainly on anti-liberalism on the right, but an earlier Atlantic piece attacked left-wing illiberal behavior. The December piece also lamented that the American left is so busy engaging in circular firing squads that it is failing to counter the rise of authoritarianism abroad.
Focused on America’s own bitter problems, they [Americans on the left] no longer believe America has anything to offer the rest of the world: Although the Hong Kong prodemocracy protesters waving American flags believe many of the same things we believe, their requests for American support in 2019 did not elicit a significant wave of youthful activism in the United States, not even something comparable to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.
Incorrectly identifying the promotion of democracy around the world with “forever wars,” they fail to understand the brutality of the zero-sum competition now unfolding in front of us. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does geopolitics. If America removes the promotion of democracy from its foreign policy, if America ceases to interest itself in the fate of other democracies and democratic movements, then autocracies will quickly take our place as sources of influence, funding, and ideas.On safetyism and “cancel culture”
On VanDerWerff’s charge that Yglesias made her feel unsafe by signing the Harper’s letter, see Berny Belvedere, “Harper’s scarlet letter: Matthew Yglesias, free speech, and cancel culture,” Arc Digital, July 12, 2020. “The suggestion that taking the contrary position literally endangers those on the opposing side has a clinching effect—the debate can’t continue. It is shut down because of safety concerns,” Belvedere wrote. Claims that the expression of certain points of view endanger the safety of some people are widespread on the left, as when some New York Times reporters claimed their safety was endangered by the printing of a Tom Cotton editorial during the George Floyd protests in 2020. Belvedere also presents an example of how the helpful concept of political “dog whistles” can be used in bad faith to claim the ill-intent of any viewpoint. There is also a definition of “cancel culture,” which would suggest that, although Yglesias wasn’t forced to resign, he might still be considered a victim of a cancellation. It is a useful definition, worth quoting at length:
I think we see a targeting as a cancellation when the person who is in the crosshairs is there for views we think should continue to be seen as discourse legitimate. Since there is considerable difference of opinion regarding what our discourse parameters should be, this naturally leads to wildly divergent applications of “cancel culture”—it leads to people substantially disagreeing about whether a particular targeting counts as a cancellation or not.
Blake Neff, a longtime senior writer for Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, was fired when his relentlessly racist and sexist online comments under a pseudonym came to light. Is this a cancellation? This one isn’t hard at all. It’s manifestly not [because not discourse legitimate]….
If one thinks the views in question are seriously inappropriate, the offending person’s termination won’t be seen as a “cancellation” but as a righteous application of discourse accountability. It follows that, on some occasions, our “cancel culture totally exists!/cancel culture is totally nonexistent!” back-and-forths are really just disguised ways of saying “I think this view should continue to be debated!/I think this view should not be up for discussion!”
A harder thing to pin down is when exactly reputational damage, rather than employment status, counts as “cancel culture.”
I suggest not conceiving of cancel culture as primarily having to do with outcomes. This is tough when the name itself, “cancel,” is a success term. If someone has not actually been canceled, then how can their targeting be called a cancellation? It makes intuitive sense to require a cancellation to involve a genuine canceling.
But I want to move away from this understanding of it because, often times, the outcomes are predicated on arbitrary factors like whether the target is independently wealthy, or how amenable their boss is to outspokenness, or how fearful their university is of lawsuits, or any number of other luck-based factors that take us away from the supposedly inappropriate actions.