Will Progressives Always Be Hostage to their Worst Elements?

Politics Features cancel culture
Will Progressives Always Be Hostage to their Worst Elements?

“When is it appropriate and okay to be ruthlessly politically realistic, and when should those considerations be ignored entirely?”

—Will Menaker, co-host, Chapo Trap House

In one of those insular, almost arcane controversies that could only matter to the most hyper-online leftists, author and former Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi appeared last week on the podcast Chapo Trap House to discuss, among other things, his excellent piece on the self-sabotaging tendencies of the media in an age of cancel culture. “It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact,” Taibbi wrote, “but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.”

In an episode that went behind a Patreon paywall, Taibbi joined co-hosts Will Menaker and Amber Frost (herself a brilliant writer who routinely pisses off her own tribe), and while covering two of today’s unavoidable political topics—the concept of abolishing the police and the debatable existence of cancel culture—they engaged with a bigger problem that has been eating at many of us, I think, since the pandemic began: Can a progressive movement exist that doesn’t fall prey, over and over, to its least strategic, most impractical, most reactionary, and perhaps most cynical elements?

The notion that police should be abolished, which has caught fire since the death of George Floyd, can be confusing in that it means different things to different people. In its least adamant form, the idea stands in for a concept that is more like replacing than abolishing, and the vision for what the new law enforcement institution might look like tends to be muddled at best (and, at worst, involves disastrous notions of community police forces with even less oversight). In its most committed form, abolition means abolition, with a “clear” vision, albeit idealistic, of where the resources would go, and how crime would be handled in a police-less future.

And my question has been this: Can I believe that resource reallocation could reduce the need for police (in my city, Durham, NC a violence interruption initiative run through the county health department has significantly reduced murders and shootings in two of our highest-crime neighborhoods), that demilitarization is imperative, and that bureaucratic and philosophical changes are necessary, while still believing that the “abolish police” talking point is totally counterproductive? Can I believe that activists who fight to redirect police money to other services, and who fight in the cities against conservative Democratic incumbents, are doing good work, while also believing that they’re being undermined by their hyper-radical peers?

What can you say to a concept so plainly unrealistic, so plainly unpopular even in modified form? How can it possibly help progressives, at a time when circumstances have drawn national attention to the problem of over-policing and police abuse, to push for a solution that you couldn’t explain to your parents or your less-online friends without feeling embarrassed? My personal belief is that police will always have a role in a modern society, but even if that’s not the case, a state of no-police would have to be achieved slowly and with a significant cultural transformation over time, not because a small contingent of leftists screamed it loud enough in 2020.

When Menaker raised the question of this unreality, Frost identified the motive behind these doomed campaigns as cynical.

“That’s the point, though,” she said. “Why do you think liberals glom onto whatever the most trendy if unrealistic but “radical” position is, particularly if it’s minoritarian? We will never have to put this into effect, it definitely won’t work, so it’s low stakes and also anyone arguing for social democratic reforms that have the largest appeal to working class people…don’t have to do that. They can distract from that, they can say ‘actually, the fact that it’s broadly popular means that it’s not radical, what’s actually radical is this heavily minoritarian focus on something that’s totally unfeasible and unpopular beyond a few NGO weirdos and Twitter radicals and academics, and people that don’t live in areas with a lot of crime.”

It’s a harsh view, that the “abolish police” crowd are essentially neoliberals in hiding, engaging in hyper-radical policy promotion in order to undermine something more generally beneficial like Medicare for All. I’m not sure I agree with her on their intent—most people I’ve engaged with on topics like abolishing the police seem sincere, and are also fighting for M4A and other social programs—but regardless, I think she’s nailed the result. Getting caught in the weeds of these unworkable concepts cuts off any chance of victory on fronts that might actually work, undermines leftist credibility with the “normie” world, and makes it incredibly easy for conservatives to ridicule and/or demonize the people behind the cause. Look at the autonomous zone in Seattle—given just enough room by an indecisive mayor to stage a sloppy sort of real-life experiment, activists humiliated themselves and the people unlucky enough to live in their jurisdiction were begging the police to return. Will an adult fantasy camp be the ultimate legacy of a powerful protest movement?

What if, instead of revolutionary cosplay doomed to failure, those activists had picked a goal like the implementation of a police-independent anti-violence initiative in their cities, or free housing, or the funneling of city resources to public health instead of police in areas of excess? I’m sure many of them are engaged in those exact battles, but the point is that engaging in this one tanked their credibility at a time when, arguably, they had more potential influence than ever before.

Taibbi, in the podcast, compared “abolish police” to the great loyalty oath crusade in Catch-22, a situation in which failing to echo the consensus is grounds for punishment.

“People are continually caught up in these manias now,” he said. “It’s a style of politics that maybe Twitter has made worse, all the nuance disappears, and it’s are you for us or are you against us? When the thing might be very complicated and the solution that’s being pushed might not be feasible.”

Which relates directly to “cancel culture,” the other bugbear of these odd times. The question is the same: If you’re a progressive, can you safely distance yourself from loathsome whiners like Bari Weiss while still admitting that there is a definite sect of cancel-happy leftists who, given any cultural influence, will immediately start exercising it in petty displays of power? Who, rather than press an agenda of social reform, will—to quote Menaker—”try to get a guy fired from Pep Boys for posting a meme on Facebook”?

In his Substack post, Taibbi highlights several clear examples of this phenomenon. One that he didn’t relate, which happened afterward, involved the bizarre decision by the Washington Post to run a story about a blackface incident from 2018 that cost a private citizen her job. Her decision, though apparently meant as a commentary on racism (?), was plainly idiotic, but to resurrect it now seemed to make no sense, and came at the behest of another private citizen whose actions in pursuing the publication were acts of plain sadism.

And that’s been clear for my entire lifetime—if the left is on the rise, even as a cultural force, there will always be elements within it who take advantage of that nascent power to pursue their own influence by attacking the mistakes of everyone from the Pep Boys worker to the New York Times opinion editor. I don’t think it takes any feat of psychological perception to recognize that they’re after control, and part of the thrill of that control is to exert their power by punishing transgressors. It’s old-school religion, in a way. These kinds of people exist in all political movements, at all times, but they tend to thrive under certain historical conditions. The ones who are “thriving” now are certainly less dangerous than they could be if they had more power than Twitter and a capitulating media allow, but I don’t see the point in trying to deny their existence. Some outlets have attempted that feat, and it just comes off as weak and apologetic—half of the incidents they try to explain away, the other half they say, “oh yeah, that one was bad, but it’s not a trend.”

The existence of the sadists isn’t unusual, or even a problem. The problem is when everyone else is so afraid of them that they strangle the neck of the movement. It leads to a predictable result, and one of that most of have lived with for a very long time—cultural power within liberal bubbles is concentrated in the hands of those who master the rules and lingo, while real political power in the country belongs, as always, to the right. That’s the exchange, and it’s also the worst consequence if those segments amass too much influence.

Which they always seem to do. “If you’re more interested in radical platitudes and signaling, you’re not serious,” Frost said, but in fact they are serious, quite serious, about amassing cultural power. They’re also good at it, and that’s the problem—standing up to them and recognizing the cynical side of identity politics is not easy, but ignoring it or even embracing it can be. Most of us will never be canceled, but the price of letting this go unchecked is that the great masses of offline, outside-academia human beings will continue to be turned off by the stories that emerge—fed them to by a grateful conservative media—and progressive power will be checked in its place.

And even if it sounds hyperbolic, free speech is at stake. In his post, Taibbi covers the incident at the New York Times when James Bennet, the opinion editor, was fired as a direct result of an essay in his paper by Tom Cotton advocating for a military “response” to looting and rioting in cities. I disagree with Cotton, of course, but I agree with Frost, who said that “whispers are more dangerous than shouts.”

What is the point, the real point, of censoring Cotton, or forcing Bennet’s resignation (short of the embarrassing fact that he hadn’t read the piece)? If an idea can’t succeed without opposition, can it succeed at all? If an idea is so powerful that it’s irresistible—Cotton’s was not—can you really stifle it by censorship? If you only approve of free speech with limits, isn’t it true that you don’t approve of it at all?

The silencing of Cotton may seem like no great tragedy, but it’s not hard to see how this playbook has trickled into progressive political campaigns and been used cynically against politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Corbyn was stymied by absurd accusations of anti-Semitism, and was never able to shake them, while Sanders couldn’t quite figure out how to handle being called a racist and sexist, though he did everything he could to assuage the accusers. If you ask Taibbi, that might be part of the problem. His prescription for a future Sanders, or a future Corbyn, involves showing some backbone in the face of these tactics, and doing it immediately. “People always initially over-apologize in the moment,” he said on Chapo, “and it turns out that’s a mistake, because they’re never going to stop coming for you…call bullshit on it immediately. That’s your best shot.”

But here’s the question: Can that lesson be learned? Are there progressive politicians who will fight robustly for a Green New Deal, and Medicare for All, and racial justice, and criminal justice reform, and affordable education, and all the rest, without getting bogged down by the cynics with a nose for power who have become so effective at ruling by fear and limiting the discourse? It is hard enough, by far, for a leftist movement to fight the manufactured consent enforced by centrists and right-wingers with the help of the mainstream press. To fight that battle on two fronts will take a special kind of strength; the ability both to identify the bad actors, and to cut them out before they can sink the ship.

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