Politics & Policy

The Destructive Power of Progressive Overreach

Protesters hold signs during a march against white nationalism in New York City (Reuters: Joe Penney)
The Left’s ceaseless zealotry is good for Trump, but bad for everyone else.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published by Arc Digital. It is reprinted here with permission.

As the reality of Trump’s election to the presidency first set in, analysts immediately began their frenzied search for an explanation. Within the social-media space, brimming as it was with ecstatic visions of our sudden national apocalypse, one factor in Trump’s triumph became clear: progressive overreach.

A hashtag was used — #ThatsHowYouGotTrump — to capture the worst instances of progressive zealotry.

Although the label was gleefully applied — after all, Trump’s election represented an unmistakable rebuke to Democratic self-satisfaction — there was a pedagogical component to pointing out examples of overreach.

If we could educate the Left on the disastrous effects of their limitless moral posturing, perhaps they would temper their enthusiasm. We would reform society by defanging the reformers. A call for progressive self-deportation!

This was a remarkable development. We were offering the Left an Argument from Progressive Self-Interest. It was theirs for the taking. Here’s the argument in formal terms.

(1) The pursuit of social change in accordance with progressive values is ethically desirable.

(2) Yet doing so fervently, or at least doing so beyond a threshold of broad social acceptability, leads to political backlash.

(3) The backlash often amounts to politically disastrous consequences for the progressivist cause.

(4) While fervently pursuing or promoting progressivism is ethically desirable, it is pragmatically detrimental, electorally speaking.

(5) Sometimes ethical considerations trump pragmatic ones, but in this case doing so creates a worse overall outcome, ethically speaking. To win politically is to win ethically, given that political power enables the social change we are looking for.

So, (6) We should sometimes take measures such as tempering our enthusiasm, pursuing incremental rather than wholesale change, and not demonizing rival ideologies in order to be most effective at securing our political goals.

We offered this reasoning — not, mind you, explicitly laid out in this form — in order to help the country.

We wanted to help the Left understand Trump’s ascension was a symbol of American displeasure with militant progressivism; Trump was the embodiment of the nation’s very own #resistance.

Did it work?

It is more than just bad analysis to conceive of Trump as America’s sole destructive force. It isn’t “both sides”-ism to see Trump-exclusive criticism as misguided.

It doesn’t appear so. The overreach remains entrenched, like a permanent fixture, plaguing our media coverage and our public discourse, provoking reactionary postures that are often times even more morally compromised than the source of the original agitation.

Trump is a singularly offensive individual — that much is undeniable. But that can be true while at the same time it is true that Trump’s opponents regularly overreach in their attempts to delegitimize and ultimately displace our 45th president from office.

It is more than just bad analysis to conceive of Trump as America’s sole destructive force. It isn’t “both sides”-ism to see Trump-exclusive criticism as misguided.

In an earlier piece in which I distinguished between Trump concern and Trump panic, I wrote:

Disaffection with Donald Trump can take many forms. At the extreme end of the spectrum is pure, panic-stricken hysteria, and involves conceiving of our 45th president as a world-historical threat to decency and civilization; a terrifying, norm-violating, culture-destroying, institution-desecrating madman. . . . 

[It’s true that] Trump is a destructive force in American politics. But his is an opportunistic destructiveness — he relies on a decay already there. [Many] see Trump as the original source of destruction; the defiler of Pleasantville. But the pathologies that enabled Trump’s ascent were present long before he came on the scene.

The country notices when Trump is treated as the nadir of all evil. The Clinton campaign centered their message on Trump’s unfitness rather than on offering workable solutions for the majority of Americans. Yet neither Clinton’s spectacular defeat nor really anything else seems to be capable of alleviating the fervor. So here we find ourselves, eight months into the Trump era, with little expectation that the Argument from Progressive Self-Interest will ever be accepted.

I struggle to understand why.

It’s not as if this argument for progressive restraint is the product of inscrutable reasoning. It’s not as if it was hard to understand why voters had a problem being portrayed as hopelessly inferior and incurably bigoted.

There was no way to foresee this, but it turned out that saying to a student, sitting quietly at her library desk, “f*** your white tears,” wasn’t taken as an inviting gesture by the masses. It was impossible to know beforehand, but it turned out that the Obama administration’s censorship of then-French president Francois Hollande’s reference to “Islamist terrorism,” by muting the audio during that part of his speech for American audiences didn’t evoke a sense that the White House had their priorities in order. You would have needed a crystal ball to predict that rolling out Lena Dunham to muse on the “extinction of white men” would not be received by ordinary Americans as a recovery of Eden.

Add to this the infinite explanatory power of white privilege. The sciences wish they could find causal accounts this definitive for anything — well, progressives have discovered that white success is totally explained by unearned advantages. What a shocker these same cheaters didn’t end up voting for them en masse.

I’m being sardonic, I know. But at the same time, this is a serious problem. The progressive possession of an indestructible moral purity, and their sneering dismissiveness of any rival framework, fundamentally reveals an impatience with, rather than a respect for, pluralism.

I understand: When you’re basking in the certitude of moral infallibility, there’s no time to wait for those who just don’t get it. But for the good of the country, even if it means Democratic victories in the years ahead, I would urge progressives to develop a new appreciation for reason and argument, rather than culture-war bulldozing, as the primary driver of social change.

What does it mean to utilize reason and argument rather than the kind of evangelistic zeal I’ve been describing? Using two examples from just this week alone, I’d like to model the sort of measured approach conservatives should be able to applaud.

Both examples contain (a) the presence of a position not currently accepted by many on the right, and (b) a sample way to articulate it in such a way that conservatives might at least not be turned off by it.

The first example comes from a piece published on Monday in the Washington Post entitled “Why Are People Still Racist? What Science Says about America’s Race Problem.”

In it, we’re treated to the following claim by Eric Knowles, a New York University psychology professor:

An us–them mentality is unfortunately a really basic part of our biology. There’s a lot of evidence that people have an ingrained even evolved tendency toward people who are in our so-called “in group.” . . . Most if not all people carry implicit biases and unexamined prejudices.

Knowles is correct.

Yet this insight has implications for how we should deal with manifestations of certain kinds of racism. My colleague, Ryan Huber, has offered a taxonomy of racism at Arc Digital. One of his reasons for doing so was he noticed, as America has noticed, that a sector of country is too quick to grab the pitchforks, call employers, engineer shaming campaigns, etc.

The reality is there are gradations of racism, and each type calls for a different response. For an orientation so emphatically committed to the value of diversity, it’s striking that progressivism has such a hard time underwriting differentiated responses to diverse phenomena. More significantly, lumping all offenses together strips the most egregious instances of racism of their capacity to incite universal condemnation.

So what constitutes a measured response to Knowles’s insights? A willingness to be judicious, and patient, and ultimately winsome, when pointing out a person’s “implicit biases” and “unexamined prejudices.” If Knowles is correct then many of these instances stem from natural, unchosen perceptual habits. And when it comes to addressing wrong beliefs or predispositions of a more natural kind, the best response is guidance rather than chastisement.

Also in the Washington Post, and also on Monday, Catherine Rampell published an article entitled “Trump’s Lasting Legacy Is to Embolden an Entirely New Generation of Racists.”

Except that wasn’t its original title, was it?

The Post changed the headline from this: “White Millennials Are Just as Racist as Their Grandparents.” The article remained the same, and no explanatory note was offered at the bottom, but the headline was altered.

To her credit, Rampell herself tweeted that she agreed the original headline was misleading. But what’s utterly remarkable is that the original headline was proposed in the first place. It is so obviously misleading that only someone predisposed to seeing whites in the worst possible light could authorize it. Look at the headline again: Assuming it wasn’t intentionally chosen for its explosive nature, someone conjured up that headline and actually thought it innocuous and helpfully descriptive.

The article’s main source of support cites the following data point: “Over 3 in 10 white millennials believe blacks to be lazier or less hardworking than whites, and a similar number say lack of motivation is a reason why they are less financially well off as a group.”

3 in 10?

Does it strike you that the original headline — “White Millennials Are Just as Racist as Their Grandparents” — makes it seem as though white millennials and their grandparents are overwhelmingly racist?

Try it this way. If I say “American whites are just as incapable of finishing high school as Asian Americans,” what would you think? If you believed me, you’d think these two groups were flunking out of high school by the droves.

While the statement is literally true (both groups’ passing rates register in the high 80s), it is obviously misleading.

Reading only the original headline, one would assume the article is promising to marshal evidence for the thesis that most white millennials and their grandparents are racists.

I happen to think the revised title — “Trump’s Lasting Legacy is to Embolden an Entirely New Generation of Racists” — is true, but still misleading, albeit to a lesser degree. How might it look stripped of its misleading character? Try this: “While most of his supporters reject racism, one of Trump’s legacies will be to embolden a new generation of racists.” Or this: “While a majority of Americans categorically denounce racism, the number of white millennials who exhibit racist attitudes is perhaps surprising.”

These, admittedly, would function as a kind of anti-click-bait. But most serious outlets accept that click-attraction does not justify misleading headline creation. If you’re fine with giving away the main data point within the headline, you could always go with the safe: “3 in 10 older white Americans exhibit racist attitudes. It turns out white millennials do so at the same rate.”

None of these are headlines I’d be excited to use, but I’m trying to fit into the skin of what an editor for Rampell’s piece might plausibly wish to use, were he or she committed to describing the contents of the article more accurately.

The Washington Post is one of my favorite publications. I’ve written for them, and I have no interest in picking on them. What I am pointing to, fundamentally, is a constellation of interconnected institutions — the academy, the media, the grassroots, the hyperpartisan denizens of social platforms — each engaged in self-escalating and mutually reinforcing ideological aggressiveness, resulting in the sort of overreach that leads not just to Trump but ultimately to a sort of public dissonance that is corrosive to our democratic norms.

And I would say stop. Please just stop.

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